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Snow remains scarce, fire season approaches, and meteorologists are concerned 

More moisture needed

click to enlarge The Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in 2012 after many dry months. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • The Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in 2012 after many dry months.
Growing up in Colorado, everyone knew the rule: The first big snow comes before or on Halloween.

But in Colorado Springs this year, October passed without a snowman. Then came a dry November, a brown Christmas, and downright balmy weather in January and early February. That Feb. 10 snow aside, this winter has been unusually dry. Many locals can count the times they’ve scraped their windshield on one hand, and for a disturbingly long stretch, Pikes Peak presided over this city minus its snowy white cap.

At this point, your neighbor and the area’s top meteorologists are apt to use the same word to describe the situation: weird. Here’s another word that may come to mind for those who lived through 2002’s Hayman Fire, 2012’s Waldo Canyon Fire, or 2013’s Black Forest Fire: scary.

Colorado Springs does, after all, feature a massive wildland-urban interface — homes and businesses are nestled next to the often-steep mountain and canyon faces for miles and miles. About a quarter of the population lives on the line. While the local Forest Service complains of a fire season that’s getting longer and longer, many residents, no doubt, watched the wildfires that whipped California’s wine country this fall, killing scores, with trepidation.

But the experts say it’s not time to panic. Yet. There’s still two months ahead that could bring more snow, and that could be enough to lower fire danger until the area’s June monsoon rains come. But that’s assuming that normal weather patterns start kicking in, and you know what they say about assumptions.

On Feb. 8, an optimistic Kyle Mozley, meteorologist with the National Weather Service Pueblo, noted that a “temporary change is coming in next week” that is likely to bring long-missed snow. (Including that dumping we saw on Feb. 10.)

“But,” he added, “it will only last one to two weeks.”

There are many factors that lead to massive, destructive wildfires. There’s the moisture level in everything from “flashy” fuels like grasses and shrubs to large-diameter trees. There’s wind. Humidity. Daily highs and lows.

But it doesn’t take a genius to know that the winter’s snow pack is a huge factor. Russ Mann, fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Denver, says that it’s too early to know if trees in our area are low enough on moisture to increase the likelihood of a fire. They’re dormant right now, and you can’t accurately measure the levels, he says.

But other conditions look less than ideal. The region, he says, is in a moderate drought, with the areas to the south and southwest of us experiencing a severe drought (a couple steps down from the worst-case scenario).

(Side note: On a trip to Santa Fe in mid-January this reporter met a couple of farmers from the legendary ski town of Durango. There was no snow in the town, they said.)

Asked to compare drought conditions on Feb. 7, 2012 — months before Waldo — to the conditions on Feb. 7, 2018, Mann paused to pull up the maps and study them. “It’s not as bad as we have now,” he said.

Likewise, asked to compare this winter to the one that preceded Hayman, the largest fire in the state’s recorded history, Mozley noted that our region’s snow pack stood at 20 to 30 percent of the norm, with about two months left of winter to make it up. The winter before Hayman, our region saw 67 percent of normal snow pack.

“It’s pretty bad,” Mozley said.
click to enlarge Percent of normal precipitation shown for the month of May 2012, the month before the Waldo Canyon Fire broke out (left), and from November 2017 to January 2018. Note the similar patterns around Colorado Springs. - NATIONAL INTERAGENCY COORDINATION CENTER
  • National Interagency Coordination Center
  • Percent of normal precipitation shown for the month of May 2012, the month before the Waldo Canyon Fire broke out (left), and from November 2017 to January 2018. Note the similar patterns around Colorado Springs.
Kathy Torgerson, lead forecaster and meteorologist with the NWS Pueblo, says that climate change is always a factor. Every 10 years, she says, NWS resets “average highs and lows” and every time they get higher. Likewise, as climate science would predict, heavy rainstorms still hit the area in summer, but they are less frequent. (Some may remember the once predictable afternoon showers in summer.)

But the crazy weather this year, she says, is more related to a La Niña weather pattern that’s concentrated moisture in northern states and northern Colorado, while leaving the southern part of the state parched.

“It’s definitely record-setting deficits for this time of year,” she said.

While it’s notoriously difficult to predict weather far into the future, Torgerson says signals do not point to a wet spring. And even if we do get quite a bit more moisture in the remainder of winter and spring, all meteorologists consulted for this story agreed that it wouldn’t make up the deficit.

It’s too early to predict if the summer monsoon season will be particularly wet, though Mozley noted that autumn, at least, will likely bring relief. There are already signals that winter 2018-19 will follow an El Niño pattern, bringing moisture to the area.

In the meantime, locals are bracing themselves. Jim Reid, executive director of El Paso County’s Office of Emergency Management, says that with the ground hard and dry, he’s less worried about fires than he is about floods caused by hard spring rains that fail to absorb. Such storms have wiped out roads in the past, he notes.

Dave Condit, deputy forest and grassland supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, says he is concerned about fire, but he’s also worried that his teams may not be able to conduct controlled burns in spring due to dry, windy conditions and low moisture in plants and trees.

“Our concern now is that we may lose our opportunities, and whenever we lose our opportunities that creates more risk later on,” he says.

City Forester Dennis Will says he frets more about the trees in city parks dying than he does about the native trees in the city’s open spaces. We’ve had a couple wet years, he notes, and native trees are hardy enough to survive around five severe droughts in their lifespan.

But he does stare out his window at the tall dry grass. It wouldn’t take much, he says, for that to catch, and then it would set the under-story trees like Gambel oak aflame, and from there, it’s not much of a reach to the dry canopy. Evergreens, he says, which must maintain their foliage year-round, are bound to be especially brittle after six months “without a drink.”

We need snow, he laments. “I mean we need feet of snow, not this little powdering we’ve been getting all winter.”

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