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Drought-like conditions heighten wildfire danger across Southwest Colorado

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Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018 1:19 PM
Improperly disposed fireplace ash started a fire that nearly burned down a trailer in the Old Homestead Mobile Home Park. During an unusually dry winter, firefighters urge residents to use extreme caution with outdoor activities that have the potential to start wildfires.

If the snowless streak continues in Southwest Colorado, this year could shape up to mirror 2002, one of the driest years on record for the region, which many people remember for the Missionary Ridge Fire that burned more than 70,000 acres.

With Durango Fire Protection District responding to more than 20 brush fires since November, it begs the question: Will Southwest Colorado see an active wildfire season?

“The majority of those fires have been human caused,” said DFPD spokesman Scot Davis. “That’s a big enough number during the winter season to get people to open their eyes.”

Davis said having a heightened awareness of dry conditions is imperative to preventing wildfires.

DFPD urges residents to use caution with any outdoor activity that has the potential to start a fire, including emptying fireplace ashes, open burning, charcoal and propane cooking, and having bonfires.

“Most of us can use better judgment in what we are doing,” he said. “If there was a foot of snow on the ground, this stuff wouldn’t have the impact it does now with no snow and dry fuels.”

Bruce Evans, chief of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, said his team is hoping for the best this summer, but preparing for the worst.

“In my personal opinion, this will be an extremely active fire season,” he said. “You never know how the weather might change, though. It concerns me with the level of precipitation we have right now.”

Snowpack in the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan basins was at 33 percent of normal this week – the lowest snowfall in the state. Snowpack is important not only for moisture, but because the weight compacts grasses, and matted grass does not burn as easily.

“Some of these grasses have not been matted down as they typically would be by now,” Evans said. “Those provide a fuel source for fire to get off the ground and into the trees.”

Evans encourages homeowners to take steps to protect their property and help alleviate the spread of wildfire, especially as the weather continues to permit outdoor projects.

“There is a lot of low-hanging fruit; things that are easily achievable,” he said. “People should make a shift in building materials. ... Hardiboard siding instead of wood siding, metal roofs instead of shingles.”

He said performing wildfire mitigation and building smarter is key to wildfire prevention.

“There is a point where the fire districts do not have the resources to defend some of these neighborhoods,” he said. “If we don’t get smarter about how we build in the county, it is only a matter of time before we suffer the same loss that Napa and many others in California have.”

mrupani@durangoherald.com

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