Land, Water and People: Peak wildland fire season is approaching

As I write this, the snow pack for the Upper Rio Grande Basin is eight percent of the median average for this time of year based on snotel data. Some streams have already passed peak flow and others are peaking right now. This doesn’t bode well for the San Luis Valley’s ranchers and farmers, and it increases the likelihood of an active wildland fire season in our mountains.

Stream flow and snow pack data are just a couple of the indices Rio Grande National Forest fire managers track. Fire folks also follow data provided by four remote automated weather stations – called RAWS in government acronym language – located on the north, south, west and east sides of the San Luis Valley. The RAWS provide a variety of data including the moisture content of various sized fuels and something called the energy release component. The ERC provides managers with an idea of how hot a fire would burn. Currently, the ERCs at all four stations are trending upward and the fuel moisture levels are trending downward (i.e., getting drier).

In addition to local real time data, our fire folks track weekly and seasonal fire predictive services provided by the interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. The center is predicting continued dry conditions for southern Colorado and increasing fire danger through June and into July before the monsoons show up.

Rio Grande National Forest fire managers use all the data mentioned above to help prepare for the fire season and make decisions as to whether fire restrictions should be put in place. Without a blast of moisture soon, the Forest plans to implement Stage I fire restrictions the week of May 21. Information about fire restrictions will be provided to our local newspapers and radio stations, and will be posted on the Forest’s website and Facebook page.

Not all wildland fires are immediately suppressed on the Rio Grande National Forest, but all are managed. Sometimes wildland fires are just too dangerous to take on directly, so firefighters wait until the fire reaches safer areas before engaging them head-on. Or they may burnout areas to remove fuels before the fire reaches them and use natural barriers, such as rocky or wet areas to anchor fire lines.

Other times, Forest managers may decide to manage lightning started wildland fires to meet certain management objectives, such as improving wildlife habitat, changing the composition and structure of the vegetation in the area, and reducing fuels to be able to better manage future wildland fires. Fire managers consider many variables before deciding to manage a wildland fire to meet land management objectives including location of the fire, available firefighting personnel, other currently burning wildland fires, and current and forecasted weather.

There are several firefighting resources available in the Upper Rio Grande Basin to carry out initial fire suppression efforts. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management combine their resources and personnel in what is called the San Luis Valley Interagency Wildland Fire Management Unit to manage prescribed and wildland fires. The interagency unit has three fully staffed engines, an initial attack squad, and a whole lot of experienced fire personnel. Additionally, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control has one engine in our area and experienced fire managers, and our local volunteer fire departments may assist with initial attack of wildland fires on federally managed land. If air support is needed quickly, there are two single engine air tankers – crop duster like planes – based in Canon City.

As peak wildland fire season approaches in our area, it is important to remember that no matter how dry it gets, it takes an ignition to start a fire. Locals and visitors should take extra precautions this year to be safe with fire. Folks should avoid making campfires and burning trash and debris piles on windy days. And, don’t forget, never use fireworks on national forests (it is illegal), for it only takes one spark….

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.