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Should we prepare for another Waldo Canyon or Black Forest in 2017? 

Fire in an endless summer

click to enlarge A dry autumn is a bad sign in a region that has suffered devastating fires. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • A dry autumn is a bad sign in a region that has suffered devastating fires.

There was something creepy about Halloween this year, and it had nothing to do with ghosts or goblins.

In a state where kids usually can plan on having to wear a heavy winter coat over their costumes, Oct. 31 rolled in with a high of 80 degrees. R.C. Smith, El Paso County's deputy chief of operations for the Office of Emergency Management and the county recovery manager, says his eyebrows were raised.

"I mean when we were kids in the '60s, you could always bank on Halloween being the first big snowstorm or the start of a cold snap," he says. "I mean, never was it, you know, pleasant out — it was always bitter cold."

Halloween was not an anomaly in an otherwise normal autumn.

While the weather does appear to be turning cooler, Russ Mann, fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, notes that, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration numbers, this September was Colorado Springs' sixth warmest since 1948 and the fifth driest. Our October was the driest since 1948 and the second warmest. There was only a trace of precipitation in October, he notes — making October 2016 drier than the previous record-setters in 1955 and 1980, which had just .01 inches of rain.

Those conditions led to three fires last month in the region. The Junkins fire burned 18,400 acres near Westcliffe, the Talcott Fire burned about 14 acres near Rampart Reservoir and the Beulah Hill Fire burned 5,232 acres near Pueblo. El Paso County and the Pike National Forest are under Stage I Fire Restrictions, Teller County has an Open Burning Restriction, and Colorado Springs has a burn ban.

Remember, it's November.

Meteorologists expect the warmer-than-normal weather to continue, possibly extending fire season into Christmas season, and ushering in higher fire danger come spring in Colorado Springs — a city where 24 percent of the population lives in some 28,800 acres of wildland-urban interface.

And that could be just the beginning.

"I've never seen a signal that strong from the [National Weather Service's] Climate Prediction Center," says Tom Magnuson, warning coordination meteorologist at National Weather Service Pueblo.

The signal he's referring to calls for a warm November. December through February also should be warmer than normal in our region, he says, and there's a chance it could be dryer — though that's less certain.

The predictions are based on ocean temperatures, which greatly influence the weather throughout much of the United States. Depending on what part of the ocean they impact, and the weather they cause, the temperature patterns have different names. So, for instance, we are experiencing a weak La Niña — or a drop in sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean — which usually warms Southern Colorado. But there are other ocean influencers as well — the Arctic Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation.

"It's pretty complicated," Magnuson says.

Brian Bledsoe, chief meteorologist/climatologist for 11 News in Colorado Springs and a contributor to Weather5280.com, grew up farming on the Eastern Plains.

Farmers, he says, need to know about future weather. It helps them decide whether to insure their wheat crop against drought or sell cattle. So Bledsoe dedicates part of his time to predicting the future of weather.

"Some people don't put a lot of stock in the whole seasonal or long-range forecasting, but I've been doing it for quite a while," he says.

He notes that last year he told farmers to insure their crops in September, October and November, a prediction that turned out to be "spot on."

Bledsoe says that northern Canada — places like Saskatchewan — are seeing record highs now, meaning they aren't sending any cool air our way. Thus, he says, it's possible we could get all the way to December without "significant weather," which would perpetuate the drought cycle come spring.

But he has an even greater concern.

"In the far future I'm concerned that the longer we go with this type of a weather pattern, the longer it takes to really break it," Bledsoe says.

In fact, he thinks this signals another long drought, saying, "I think our wettest times are behind us for a while."

That could be bad news for our forests, which are already brittle.

Ralph Bellah, fire prevention staffer for the Pike and San Isabel National Forest, says that right now, "Fuel moisture is down in the single digits, and that's the big red flag for us."

That means grasses, bushes and trees are so dry, he says, that even if humidity reaches 25 percent, it won't prevent most fires, which would catch easily and, with a strong wind, would "be off to the races."

Because of that, Bellah says, the Forest Service has extra crews and engines on hand now. But Bellah says the Forest Service isn't in the business of predicting Colorado weather, and has no outlook for the summer season yet.

"Sometimes we could have red flag one day and a foot of snow the next day," he says.

Predicting fire risk is Mann's job — he looks at both fuel moistures and weather. The good news is that he thinks fire risk will drop soon in our region, because long, hot, windy days are ending. But the warmth — and possibly dryness — of the coming winter could lead to a tough fire season next summer, he says.

Still, he thinks that's tough to predict. For a more serious drought to take hold, he notes, "things really have to persist for a long time."

That's exactly what happened from the early 2000s through 2013, when the region suffered from the 2002 Hayman Fire, the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire, among others.

Since we can't control the weather, El Paso County is looking more at mitigating its wildland-urban interface, the county's Smith says.

Talks with the Forest Service have included discussions of, perhaps, clear-cutting areas to act as buffers between homes and the forest. But Smith expects that any such plan would encounter a lot of pushback. People love trees.

Then there's the funding issue. Mitigation can cost about $1,000 to $5,000 an acre. Kristin Garrison, assistant division supervisor of Fire/Fuels Management, Colorado State Forest Service Forest Management Division, says most communities need grants to do major mitigation projects, but she has seen a decline in grant money since the 2000s due to changes in federal budgets. Demand for available dollars is high.

For instance, one grant program that's competitive with 17 Western states, last year had about $12.5 million in funding, she says, and roughly $30 million in requests.

But Smith says that the county will need to act despite those challenges. Like Bledsoe, Smith isn't expecting cooler, wetter weather for the region in the future. Smith isn't basing his predictions on oscillations. He's basing it on historical temperature data, which shows an uptick in heat.

Smith knows that conservative El Paso County is packed with climate-change skeptics. He's not interested in arguing what's causing the county to heat up — that's for politicians, he says. But there's no arguing the fact that it's happening.

"It's changing," he says. "I mean, that's observable. One of my favorite bumper stickers is, 'Science doesn't care what you believe.'"

  • Fire in an endless summer

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