As drought outlook takes shape, preparations begin for wildfire season in southwestern Colorado – The Journal

Dry and hot weather expected this summer

The Durango Fire Protection District and La Plata County Emergency Management Office have begun preparations for wildfire season as drought and wildfire forecasts point to the possibility of another dry summer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Another dry summer with a significant fire risk could be in store for southwestern Colorado as the snowpack is about a week away from its peak.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a seasonal drought outlook update March 17 that suggests southwestern Colorado and much of the state will experience drought through June. While the region has seen an average snowpack this winter, forecasts show low runoff and rising temperatures that could exacerbate both drought and wildfires.

The Durango Fire Protection District and its partners are already preparing for the fire season as early forecasts indicate the threat of wildfires early in the season.

“What this really shows is that we’ve been dry for several years and it takes more than a year to get you out of a drought,” said Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

Southwestern Colorado is already experiencing drought, according to a US Drought Monitor map released last week.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seasonal drought outlook released on March 17 predicts that southwestern Colorado and much of the state will experience persistent drought through June. (Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Archuleta, La Plata, San Juan, San Miguel, Hinsdale, Ouray, and Dolores counties are all experiencing moderate and severe drought, while parts of Montezuma County are experiencing moderate, severe, and extreme drought.

The latest seasonal drought forecast from NOAA for the United States shows persistent dryness in southwestern Colorado for the next three months, with the drought covering almost the entire state except for a few slices of the north-central Colorado and the central western slope.

“The highest confidence in the (drought) forecast exists in the West where persistence is likely due to below-average snowpack for many regions and increasingly drier climatology,” the report wrote. NOAA meteorologist Brad Pugh in the seasonal assessment.

Other forecasts paint a similar picture of the potential for sustained drought before summer.

The most recent forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center paints a bleak outlook for southwestern Colorado for the upcoming wildfire season. Fire danger is expected to be high and above average in May and June. The Durango Fire Protection District and La Plata County Office of Emergency Management are monitoring drought and wildfire forecasts that indicate an early wildfire season. (Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center – Predictive Services)

NOAA’s National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center produces three-month forecasts that are updated monthly. The most recent forecast released in March shows a 60% to 70% chance of above average April through June temperatures for much of southwestern Colorado and a 40% to 50% chance of lower precipitation. average for the state as a whole.

The Climate Prediction Center’s long-term forecast shows above-average temperatures through September with average precipitation for southwest Colorado.

Projections from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center also suggest snow accumulation will not translate into runoff. Water supply forecasts on Friday showed rivers in the region flowing between 50% and 90% of normal this year.

But while forecasts outline the potential for a prolonged drought, Wolff said it was too early to tell what conditions will be like this summer.

“I think locally we’re probably more in a wait-and-see (mode),” he said. “If you look at most of our snowpack in southwestern Colorado, it’s around 100%, but when you look at the runoff forecast, it’s maybe around 70% on average.

“I think we’re still waiting to see how much of that snowpack shows up in the creek, and it’s pretty hard to predict right now,” he said.

The snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins is less than a week away from its Friday average peak. The snow cover is currently at 101% of the average for all the basins. Water supply forecasts on Friday showed rivers in the region flowing between 50% and 90% of normal this year. (Courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service)

The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins are within a week of their average peak snow accumulation, and snow accumulation in the watersheds is currently at 101% of average, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL data. However, the snowpack already seems to be decreasing.

More accurate predictions for runoff are about a week away, Wolff said. The annual projections are published on April 1.

While a clear picture of the annual runoff will soon form, the drought is more complex and affected by a number of factors such as temperature and rainfall, which will ultimately determine whether the region experiences the prolonged drought predicted by the seasonal drought outlook.

“We still don’t know where we’re going to be after this runoff season, and there’s a difference between runoff and drought conditions, which include things like temperature and rainfall,” Wolff said.

But while Wolff and water managers wait for a snowstorm to improve the drought outlook, the DFPD and the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management are already preparing for an early wildfire season.

The most recent forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services released March 1 shows a bleak outlook for southwestern Colorado. The region will face significant and above-average wildfire potential from May and June, according to forecasts.

The DFPD, county emergency management office and federal partners like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have already held their annual operational meeting, Deputy Chief Randy Black said.

“We start looking at these things as early as January, looking at what’s happening in the region and what the forecast is for temperatures and everything else, he said.

All of Colorado is experiencing drought, according to the most recent map from the federal US Drought Monitor. While southwestern Colorado has seen an average snowpack this winter, forecasts show low runoff and rising temperatures that could exacerbate both drought and wildfires. (Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Next week, the DFPD’s Wildland Division will begin checking daily humidity reports to monitor fire conditions. The agency also receives a weekly update with humidity forecasts and scorch indices, Black said.

“Basically all available forecast data that we get on a regular basis,” he said. “When things get critical, that’s when La Plata County Fire Chiefs and the County Sheriff and Emergency Manager work together to enact burning restrictions. We watch this stuff all the time.

Like the DFPD, the county’s Office of Emergency Management is tracking wildfires and associated drought and wetness forecasts to prepare for potential fires this summer.

The National Interagency Fire Center updates its wildfire forecast for the next four months each month, and Shawna Legarza, director of emergency management for La Plata County, and the DFPD can then use that forecast to prepare. their answers.

Last year, Legarza and the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District held a one-day simulation where they used wildfire and drought forecasts in their preparations.

“We look at this information that comes to us through the Federal Forest Service database and the (National Interagency Fire Center) website, and we just become aware of what drought looks like and what the potential for fire,” she said. noted. “In the emergency management role, we just have to be ready to help.”

With peak snow and summer approaching, Wolff argued that southwestern Colorado could still replenish its water supplies and improve drought prospects with spring snowstorms.

“We could still have a nice wet snowstorm in April which would be very helpful,” he said. “We may or may not.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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