Monsoonal rain has dampened wildfire risk for now. How long will it last?

A fire helicopter battle the Morgan Creek Fire in North Routt County in July 2021. A year ago, two large fires had broken out, but currently, Routt County is experiencing a spring and summer stretch that has seen strong rains helping to keep fire fuels damp.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

This time last year, two of the biggest fires in Colorado were burning in Routt County — the Muddy Slide Fire south of Steamboat Springs and the Morgan Creek Fire to the north.

But on Monday, July 18, not only was Routt County fire free, but the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management reported there weren’t any active fires in the state over 100 acres. Of six such fires this year, each has been deemed contained.

The largest one, the High Park Fire southwest of Colorado Springs, burned just under 1,600 acres, which is about 20% of the area burned by the Morgan Creek Fire.

Fire officials credit strong precipitation this spring and early summer as why fires have been less frequent so far this year. In a weekly meeting to assess the need for fire restrictions in Routt County on Monday, fire officials agreed no additional measures are needed right now.

“Grasses are tall and green, everything’s lush, rivers are full, so that’s the good news,” said Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Brady Glauthier. “No restrictions doesn’t mean we can’t have a fire. Fires are still possible.”

Officials caution that the rain hasn’t curbed fire risk entirely. While moisture has hindered the ability of fires to start among fuels like grasses and shrubs, much of the timber in forests is nearly as dry as wood being sold at a lumberyard.

“(Rain) has helped the one-hour fuels,” said Mike Swinsick, chief of the North Routt Fire Protection District, referring to quick-burning grasses and shrubs. “The 1,000 hour fuels, 100 hour fuels, stuff like that, they’re pretty dry. …  Our trees and the dead and down material on the ground is dry, almost as dry as a two-by-four.”

The Wildland Fire Potential Index — a rating of how combustible fuels are in general from the U.S. Geological Survey — still shows much of Routt County in various shades of green. This means fuels are rated between 21 and 60 on a scale that goes between zero and 150 with a higher number denoting higher risk of flammability.

The Wildland Fire Potential Index is a measure of how combustable fuels are currently. On Monday, July 18, Routt County is largely still green with ratings below 60 while areas to the west are drier.
U.S. Geological Survey/Screenshot

Swinsick said smaller fuels currently have enough moisture where they don’t allow a fire to spread. For example, if lightning were to strike a tree, the fire is less likely to spread to surrounding trees among green fuels. This has likely led to some fires that started, but never became big enough to require a response.

But this stretch of luck may be starting to wind down.   

In Moffat County — where a small wildland fire flared up Sunday, July 17, — things are dryer, with the fire potential index mainly being shares of orange and red, which indicates fuel ratings between 70 and 120. Scanner traffic indicated a small grass fire started near the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden on Monday as well, though it was quickly extinguished.

As it does each summer, Swinsick said he expects fuels to continue to dry out as summer presses on.

“All of this stuff starts to cure out toward the end of the summer going into the fall,” he said. “If we don’t keep getting wetting rains and the soil moistures drop more, that’s when we really get concerned and the sagebrush and stuff like that dries out and becomes real receptive to any kind of heat sources.”

More rain is forecasted for Steamboat Springs this week, with the National Weather Service listing chances every day until at least Sunday.

Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist based in Grand Junction, said outlooks for the next three to four weeks from the Climate Prediction Center give northwest Colorado equal chances for average precipitation, and the monsoonal pattern doesn’t yet show many signs of breaking up.

But as the summer continues and the monsoonal pattern the Western Slope has enjoyed begins to dissipate, things do look to get drier, he said. The Climate Prediction Center’s three-month outlook that extends into September predicts precipitation will be below average while temperatures are expected to exceed the mean.

The concern is that while moisture is currently easing fire risk, it is also growing, which leaves more materials to dry out and burn in the coming months.

“When we start drying out, that stuff is going to become really receptive (to fire) and there is going to be a lot of it,” Swinsick said.

Glauthier said if things do start to dry out it could lead to more nerves about potential fires, but he isn’t too concerned right now.

“Ask me again in four weeks,” he said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.