This year's fire season could be among the worst in years, due to a combination of weather and environmental factors including dry fuels, hot and windy conditions, and a thin snowpack the past winter, according to local fire officials, who are bracing for a challenging summer.
"I think everybody’s ready for a bad season. We cycle through a really bad season every five or six years, and we’re due," Bull Mountain Rural Fire Department Chief Cory Kirsch said. "Seems like every year’s bad anymore."
Data supports that intuition, according to Doug Dodge, who is Jefferson County's fire warden and disaster and emergency services coordinator.
"I'm very cautious and concerned about the conditions," Dodge said. "The data points that we see are all indicative of extremely dry conditions. One of the main things we look at is the ERC or energy-release component, with is [an estimate of] the [British thermal units] released at a fire-front. It's not in record territory, but it's tickling record territory."
Dodge said that although ERC is "just one indication that conditions are ripe for a wildfire," it's reflective of a host of metrics that all indicate this fire season is poised for large, destructive blazes. Factors including fuel moisture, topography, terrain aspect and weather influence ERC data, he said, noting that ERC "does vary from place to place."
"The ERC is much more indicative of the overall energy available to a wildfire, should once occur," he said. "All of the data points reinforce each other and reflect the true condition on the ground. The ERC ... tracks it really well, in terms of fire conditions in general, but it's certainly not the only thing."
However, "It has been bouncing around record levels."
Other factors affecting fire danger include ground moisture, the number of fire ignitions, weather—especially "red-flag warning" days with high winds and low humidity—and the availability of local, regional and national interagency firefighting resources, he said.
Kirsch, who is also a Jefferson County Commissioner from Boulder, has headed the Bull Mountain department since he began working as a firefighter there in 2007. Bull Mountain Rural Fire Department, an all-volunteer force, shares a roster with Boulder's volunteer department, Kirsch said, and is often the first agency to reach newly sparked wildfires. North to south, the department's territory stretches from the Boulder Hill to the Boulder Cutoff on state Route 69; east to west it spans from the Elkhorn Mountains to High Ore Road.
Kirsch said he noticed that dangerous fire conditions developed earlier this year than in most other years, and that "we know that there’s not much water. We haven’t had any moisture this spring."
He said that although Boulder's elevation makes it somewhat less prone to fires, "Our fields are definitely getting more and more receptive [to fire]. This is going to be a bad one—our fields are drying up quick."
Most fires around human development are human-caused, he said, while ignitions in the mountains are typically from either lightning or unattended campfires.
"If it’s way up in the mountains, we’ll typically respond to see if we can get a handle on it before the feds come in and take over," Kirsch said, referring to wildland firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal and state agencies.
As of Monday, Dodge said, the only fire restriction affecting Jefferson County was a ban on burning debris—fuels greater than 48 inches in diameter. Anything smaller, he said, is classified as a campfire and is currently allowed.
But that will likely change soon, he said.
"I would be surprised if we don't see some stage-one restrictions. We are not there yet but we are having those conversations," Dodge said, referring to interagency restrictions that generally outlaw smoking and open flames, including campfires and many grills, on public lands. "That decision mostly relies on our state and federal partners because they're the ones with most of our ground for campfires."
In addition to following restrictions, Dodge said, simple precautions go a long way toward preventing wildfires.
"It's being aware of your activities and the consequences they could possibly have. Anything can spark a wildfire and will, especially with conditions the way they are now," he said. "[Be] aware of the small actions you can take that would reduce the chances of sparking a wildfire. Is the area around your campfire clear of flammable materials? Do you have a way to put a fire out? [Take] care of your equipment so it's not prone to accidental ignitions. When you see something, don't be afraid to call it in."
Dodge also recommended that property owners prepare structures for fire season by removing brush from alongside and underneath homes, and moving wood piles away from buildings. Although Boulder isn't immediately bordered by timber, he said, "We all live in the interface, even in the city of Boulder. The alignment's perfect—if there's a fire just southwest of Boulder, it can send a shower of embers [on town]."
And leading up to the Fourth of July, he said, revelers should strongly consider saving their fireworks until winter, or at minimum, "You've got to be super careful [with fireworks] and make the best conditions you can."
"One of our biggest concerns right now is human-starts," Dodge said. "Needless to say, I'm rather pessimistic."