The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) monitors fire conditions across the country and issues fire weather outlooks that are updated multiple times a day. Forecasters at the SPC will highlight areas of concern based on how bad the fire conditions are. Those levels of severity rise from elevated to critical to extreme depending on the conditions. Most of us have seen elevated and critical fire conditions in Colorado but not many have seen extreme fire danger. For the first time in over 15 years, the Storm Prediction Center has issued a warning for extreme fire danger in Western Colorado for Thursday.
A chunk of energy spinning over Southern Nevada (known as a shortwave trough) will pass near Colorado through the day. As it traverses, it will begin to strengthen slightly and will bring winds of 30-40 mph down to the surface of Eastern Utah and Western Colorado where relative humidity values will range from 5-10%. Relative Humidity is a measure of how much water vapor in the air and the lower the number the drier the air is. ERC (Energy Release Component) is a calculation of how much fuel energy lays ahead of a potentially burning fire. The ERC values in this region are currently well above the 90th percentile (nearing record levels) for this time of the year (meaning that any fires that start, have plenty of fuel to work with) thanks to a consistent lack of precipitation and subsequent extreme and exceptional drought. Due to all of the aforementioned factors, the setup for Thursday is unfortunately perfect for wildfires to grow very quickly.
Currently, the are several fires burning in Utah as this windy day unfolds. The Bear Fire has burned over 5,000 acres. The Bennion Creek Fire has burned over a thousand acres and the Pack Creek, East Canyon and Mammoth fires are not fully contained and with the approaching weather, fire behavior may turn erratic, and quickly.
The fires in Utah were said to be showing extreme fire behavior even though the winds have been lighter recently. The fact of the matter is, everything is so insanely dry in this part of the country that no matter what the fire conditions are from day to day, it doesn’t take but a spark for the dry brush and grasses to ignite. Remember the common rules when fire conditions are high; don’t throw cigarette butts out of your window. Try not to let any metal or chain drag on the road in case of any accidental spark. And if you are camping, do not even attempt to start a campfire. Conditions similar to this may be common this summer so it’s better to get used to these types of warnings now and do what you can to prevent a fire from starting.
Winds on Thursday will be blowing from the southwest meaning that any burning fires, or fires that spark, will push north and east for a time. A high wind warning is in place for the central and lower Yampa river basin and the central Colorado basin as gusts could exceed 50 mph from Gypsum, to Carbondale to Grand Junction. A cold front is expected to move into the area on Thursday evening which is another reason why the winds will be especially gusty throughout the day. The cold front is not expected to bring any moisture with it and unfortunately, it’s looking to get hotter as we head towards the weekend and into next week as record high temperatures will be threatened.
A ridge of high pressure is looking to set up shop over the Four Corners beginning this weekend and lasting through mid-week next week. That means that much of the intermountain west will be seeing near record breaking temperatures and little, if any, precipitation is expected which will further exacerbate the drought.
Although Denver is highlighted for any fire concerns, fires across Arizona have been sending smoggy conditions towards us. Air quality has been a concern this week and with more smoke expected to float into Colorado, we can expect more hazy weather in the days to come. When combined with the heat that is expected, there will be times when it will be better to stay inside especially if you are sensitive to poor air quality and to reduce additional pollutants from filling the air we breathe, carpooling or using public transit is suggested when possible.