Fire officials worry about wildland blazes as conditions worsen

Dry vegetation, use of fireworks top list of concerns

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • A disappointing winter and a warmer-than-normal spring have created hazardous conditions in the region.
  • Two wildfires have broken out in southwest Colorado over the past few days.
  • Most of San Juan County is listed as being in severe or extreme drought.

FARMINGTON — As the outbreak of two wildland blazes this week just north of San Juan County has illustrated, fire season in the Southwest is in full swing. Local fire officials are hoping residents are taking note of the danger.

Capt. David Vega, San Juan County's deputy fire chief of operations, said the demands faced by his agency have grown heavier recently, even before the official start of summer on June 20 or the onset of fireworks season surrounding the July 4 holiday.

"In the past few weeks, we've definitely seen an uptick in wildland-related calls," he said.

A disappointing winter and a warmer-than-normal spring have created hazardous conditions in the region, contributing to the start of two wildfires over the past few days in southwest Colorado — the East Canyon Fire near Mancos and the Six Shooter Fire in the Bondad area.

Firefighters work the site of the Arroyo Fire alongside County Road 4800 on July 1, 2019

"We've gone an extreme amount of time, really three months, with no measurable precipitation hitting the ground, so fuels are extremely dry right now," Vega said.

Robert Sterrett, deputy chief of the Farmington Fire Department, said the area's fire danger is likely to remain high until it receives a substantial amount of precipitation over a sustained period. The occasional rainfall isn't likely to have much of an impact, he said.

"We got some moisture a week or two ago, and its impact was marginal," Sterrett said.

Conditions have become noticeably worse in the past couple of weeks, and that has made the job of Sterrett's department more difficult.

"Absolutely," he said. "It's not taking hardly anything to start these fires."

Sterrett noted the number of lightning-caused fires that have gotten started over the past several days in the Pagosa Ranger District in Colorado. The fact that so many blazes are being reported there doesn't bode well for hotter, drier locations like San Juan County, he said.

After several months of dry weather, conditions are ripe in San Juan County for wildland blazes like the Arroyo Fire that burned on July 1, 2019, near County Road 4800.

"It just goes to prove even the higher elevations than us are set to hold fires," he said. "We're in the same boat they are."

The effort required to fight the two Colorado wildfires already is stretching various agencies in the region thin, Vega said, meaning if a large fire gets started in San Juan County, there will be fewer resources that can be devoted to it.

"There's going to be that competition for resources," he said. "We just want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening."

Sterrett said conditions are worse than they were last summer but better than they were in 2019, when the 416 Fire north of Durango which began on June 1, 2018 and was contained on July 31, 2018.

"We're between a normal year and an extreme year," he said.

The potential for a small fire to spread rapidly and become an out-of-control blaze is very high right now, Vega said, adding that the State of New Mexico already has put numerous fire restrictions in place on state and private lands, including prohibitions on most forms of open burning and limits on where fireworks can be used.

With monsoon season more than two weeks away and the Fourth of July holiday looming, local fire officials are worried about the potential for a large wildland blaze to break out in San Juan County.

"If you're going to use fireworks, do it in an area where you're not going to set your house on fire or your neighbor's house on fire," Vega said.

As it has for the past several years, San Juan County is making the northeast corner of the parking lot at McGee Park, 41 County Road 5568 between Farmington and Bloomfield, available to fireworks users. The lot will be open from June 20 through July 6.

More:Update: Bear rescued from East Canyon Fire as blazes continue to burn in southwest Colorado

From July 2 through July 4, Vega said fire officials will be on patrol throughout the county to enforce state fire restrictions and help prevent any accidental fires from getting started.

Vega said conditions this year are noticeably drier than they were last year, when San Juan County received abundant snowfall, substantially reducing the wildfire risk. Most of the county is classified as being in severe or extreme drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and Vega said the short-term forecast doesn't offer any reason for optimism.

"In terms of outlook, there is no measurable precipitation expected for the next 10 to 14 days," he said.

More:Monsoon forecast isn't rosy, but it's better than last year

But over the long term, Vega is more hopeful.

"We're hoping the monsoons are going to be on time," he said. "All indications are that the monsoons are going to be normal in terms of precipitation."

Sterrett said the approach of monsoon season is good news, but he noted it isn't necessarily a cure-all for the county's overall lack of moisture.

"The only downside to monsoons is, it might rain at the airport and not (anywhere else)," he said, referring to the often-spotty nature of those storms.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.