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Know the West

Out like a lion, in like a wildfire


Back in December, when temperatures at HCN-HQ in Paonia plummeted regularly into face-shattering freezingness and the high country softened under pillows, featherbeds, jumpy-castles of snow, it was easy to imagine Colorado's immediate future rife with moisture. Maybe even a mild spring on the high plains, piled with wildflowers and lushly green around the edges and ... well ... not engulfed in flames by March.

As a Coloradan, I should know better.

Despite the fact that much of the state still has a robust mountain snowpack, more than 25,000 acres had  already burned in 66 wildfires as of March 29, many of them on the Front Range, home of the Denver et al. megalopolis, which has tangled its suburby fingers up through the foothills into already fire-prone terrain. Compare that to last year's TOTAL -- 44,000 acres. The warm, dry conditions on the Front Range are even prompting comparisons to 2002, which saw dry conditions around the West and one of the most destructive fire seasons in Colorado history -- with nearly one million acres scorched.

“The recent wildfire activity ... is a wake–up call to what has the potential to be a tough fire season," Regional Forester Rick Cables observed late last month. No sooner had his statement spread through the press than another fire kicked up in the foothills west of Fort Collins this past weekend, and, whipped by gusts from a late winter storm, consumed 3,200 acres and destroyed at least 15 homes. It's now only 15 percent contained, with firefighters bracing for more dry windy weather as another storm barrels towards the mountains.

And Colorado isn't the only state off to a scorching start. Three quarters of Texas are in severe drought -- with October through February the fifth driest period in the state's recorded history -- and 74,000+ acres had burned there through March 29. In New Mexico, the number was nearly 90,000. The White Fire, which started Sunday, reached 10,000 acres before firefighters were able to contain it 20 percent and lift evacuation orders. The same weekend saw 27 fires around the state -- you can find a great rundown on those here.

And if you're interested in keeping tabs on wildfire elsewhere in this, the flaming spring, bookmark Inciweb. It's got the goods, regularly updated, for full fire geekery.

On the plus side, a brief survey of our Facebook community reveals that the Northwest (including Idaho) is still sodden with spring moisture, though the eastern front of the Sierra is seeing some fire activity, with the town of Big Pine threatened by a 2,000 acre blaze from an escaped campfire in late March. And in Utah, HCN Facebook follower Jared Blackley reports, folks are more worried about floods than fire along the Wasatch Front.

Jared, we here in Colorado would gladly take some of that moisture off of Utah's hands. Can you send some of it our way, pretty pretty please? 

Sarah Gilman is HCN's Associate Editor.

Photo of Crystal Fire, burning west of Fort Collins and Loveland, Colo., courtesy of Dan O'Donnell.