Wildfire-drought

 A U.S. Drought Monitor — a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the USDA and NOAA — map shows the drought conditions throughout Colorado, as of Thursday. (Courtesy image)

It is difficult to imagine wildfires flaring up when the forecast is for a succession of cloudy days.

Yet over the last week, the National Weather Service has issued both a Red Flag Warning and a Fire Weather Watch for Ridgway, and the Town of Mountain Village Thursday announced a voluntary water conservation program similar to restrictions during the 2018 season. 

“Based on recent reports from the USDA/NRCS National Water and Climate Center and Bikis Water Consultants Division of SGM, the town is being proactive in initiating this year’s restrictions in June in an attempt to conserve water from the start of the irrigation season,” Mountain Village Public Works Director Finn Kjome said in a news release.

The conservation efforts, which will go into effect Monday and be re-evaluated as conditions change, are for Mountain Village, Ski Ranches, Elk Run and Skyfield.

Officials explained all properties north of Mountain Village Boulevard and Elk Run residents may water their landscaping on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only. All properties south of Mountain Village Boulevard, plus the Ski Ranches and Skyfield, may water landscaping on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays only. Irrigation clocks must be set to run at a level of 70-75 percent of normal water consumption for the three days a week residents are allowed to water. Irrigating hours will be either before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. 

All exterior water features must be turned off during this conservation effort, according to the news release. No trucked-in water will be allowed to be hooked up to existing irrigation systems, due to potential water contamination “cross-connection” occurrences.

Since new landscaping requires additional watering, landscaping installed since the spring of 2019 and future landscaping projects may apply for additional watering permission. All permit applications, which include landscaping additions or changes, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the Mountain Village Planning Department. For more information, contact planner John Miller at 970-369-8203 or johnmiller@mtnvillage.org.

“Please be aware that if the San Miguel River goes under administration (on-call), further water restrictions may be necessary as the town follows its augmentation requirements,” Kjome said. “If the weather conditions do not cooperate, this could result in a ban on all exterior watering from the town’s water system.  On the other hand, if the region does see a significant increase in moisture, the town may retract its water conservation efforts.”

The two Ridgway warnings are related, said Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office. “A Fire Weather Watch is typically issued a few days ahead of” what are likely to be windy, dry conditions, he explained. “A Red Flag Warning is issued 24 hours ahead, meaning it’s very likely that these conditions will occur.” 

Specifically, “these” conditions are humidity below 15 percent, and wind gusts of 25 mph or more that could blow, Aleksa said, “for a more than three-hour period.”

Gusty winds and low humidity add up to conditions for a fire that is capable of not just burning, but getting out of control. 

We already have the dry, and it looks as if it’s here to stay. 

“In San Miguel County, it varies,” he added. “The Telluride portion is in an extreme drought. As you head farther west, toward the Utah border, the drought is moderate.” 

The National Weather Service’s outlook “for the rest of the summer,” Aleksa went on — which is to say, from June through Aug. 31 — “is that the drought will persist. It doesn’t show any kind of signal that it will improve or worsen. Conditions will remain the same. The fuels are all critical, and they’re pretty much ready to go anywhere in western Colorado,” Aleksa summed up. “If something were to occur, the potential is up there for wildland fires.” 

The organization often issues warnings for fire zones, but does not say where they are, instead referring to them by number. 

“Fire Zones are not county-based,” Aleksa explained. “They’re really based on vegetation, and type of fuels in an area. They are somewhat based on elevation, too.”

A few years ago, San Miguel County — which is 1,289 square miles in size — was considered to be “one or two zones. It actually used to be a much bigger fire zone, but it was divided into four zones. It was changed to make it easier for land management agencies, and are a much better way of indicating different types of fuels, and where these fuels are based,” Aleksa said. “In your area, the higher areas of San Miguel County are Fire Zone 291, and Fire Zone 292, in Ouray County” comprises the lower elevations. 

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, assesses wildland fire risks for the entire country. For the month of June, the agency predicts an above normal chance of wildfires in southwest Colorado, and by July, the chance of wildfires “extends to all of western Colorado and eastern Utah,” Aleksa said. The one event that might quench the risk of fires is the annual monsoon — a change in the annual weather pattern that typically begins in the middle of July, and continues through August and into September. 

“This is the Southwest American Monsoon,” not the famous, driving rains “of the Indian one, where water is pulled directly off the ocean,” Aleksa mentioned, as a reminder. “This one has to travel across several states before it even reaches us. It takes a while for the moisture to increase, and to result in steadier rain. What we may get at first could be a lot of wind, until the atmosphere really opens up and we see rain descending to lower levels. But storms do form every day. It’s just a matter of whether they form and track to where we are, and we get rain out of it.” 

Editor Justin Criado contributed to this story.