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Despite light monsoons, S.W. Colo. escapes fires

JENNAYE DERGE/Durango Herald

Clouds gather above the Animas Valley Sunday afternoon. Julie Malingowski, with the National Weather Service, says monsoons should come, but winds haven’t shifted in our favor. “We’re all just waiting for the monsoon to hit,” she said. “It typically starts around now, the middle of July.”

By Brandon Mathis
Herald Staff Writer

As thunder grumbles over the mountains teasing the region with hopes of rain, much of southern Colorado remains in drought, while Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak area have been hammered with flash floods.

It’s no secret Rocky Mountain weather is as moody, but this summer has seen it all.

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, northern La Plata County is abnormally dry and its southern portion is in severe drought. It’s worse in Montezuma County. In the state’s eastern grasslands, several counties are experiencing extreme droughts, and much of Kiowa County is in exceptional drought.

On July 15, however, several homes and six businesses were damaged in early-morning flash floods in Pagosa Springs, the National Weather Service’s Julie Malingowski said, as heavy thunderstorms moved over the downtown area.

Despite isolated rainfalls, fire is a constant threat.

Twelve years ago, the Missionary Ridge Fire burned for more than a month, consuming 83 structures and 73,000 acres of forests, according to the United States Geological Survey. Forests are still recovering from the flames, with landslides and falling timber – widow-makers – all present hazards. Burn areas are still covered in blackened charred trees.

Relieved from battling large wildfires this year, Durango Fire Protection District’s Tanker 5 and two crew members departed Sunday for Prineville, Oregon, to combat the 94,000 acre Ochoco Fire complex. Durango Fire Marshall Karola Hanks said both Oregon and Washington are inundated with fire.

“We have a wildland crew that we bring on in the summer,” she said. “We’re just not seeing the fires, so we feel comfortable releasing them to go help in other communities.”

During a 10-day period this summer, Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center responded to 68 wildfires on federal lands across Southwest Colorado. All but one was determined to be caused by lightning.

Lightning, the cause of Ochoco blaze, strikes often. This summer, the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center has had 68 lightning-related wildfires.

“We’ve been responding to lightning strikes, but they’re not really moving, so we’ve been able to put them out,” Hanks said. “So far, we’re doing OK.”

Lightning also accounts for a number of power outages, challenging La Plata Electric Association crews and testing surge-protection abilities.

Justin Talbot, lines and service manager for LPEA, called dealing with elements is typical for this time of year, saying special lightning arresters are in place to protect lines.

Talbot said when lightning strikes, power blinks, or goes out for as little as a second, and then the system isolates one section where it actually struck.

“We get a lot of that,” he said. “We’re just trying to be as efficient as we can to keep lights on as well as protect our equipment and customers.”

Lightning has caused two fatalities in Rocky Mountain National Park this year and injured 13. Colorado ranks tenth in the nation’s most lightning-prone states, with 394 fatalities in recorded history. Florida leads the country with 1,523 lightning-related deaths.

On average, lightning strikes the United States 25 million times each year. According to the National Weather Service, lightning struck Southwest Colorado 41,318 times during a period in July last year. Bolts can stretch five miles in length and reach temperatures of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the ground, the Animas River peaked on June 2 this year, at just under 5,000 cubic feet per second. It has slowed to a mellow 500 cfs as of July 20. On the same day in 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire, it trickled down to 140 cfs, among its lowest flows in 100 years.

Malingowski said the rain should come, but winds haven’t shifted in our favor.

“We’re all just waiting for the monsoon to hit,” Malingowski said. “It typically starts around now, the middle of to July.”

The weather service has seen an increase in moisture, but it is predicting more dry air moving into the region this week.

bmathis@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated to reflect a more accurate count of wildfires that have occurred this summer.

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