Hot, dry weather continues to fuel wildfires in Colorado and Utah

Following a drier than average winter and spring across the Southern Rockies, it comes as little surprise that fire season is off to an active start. Several large fires have been burning across Colorado and Utah over the past month, with a more noticeable uptick occurring over the last week of June as hot and dry conditions prevailed.  The first week of July is starting out similar to the way June ended, with high fire danger and challenging fire behavior due to low relative humidity, dry fuels, hot temperatures, breezy conditions, and dry thunderstorms.  Below is an image produced by the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, outlining the fire concerns for Monday July 2nd across the Central Rockies and High Plains.



Today’s conditions will be challenging both for ongoing fires and for the potential for new fires to be ignited.  Utah is not included in the map above, but fire danger remains elevated there as well, with most of the state under a Red Flag Warning today.  Below is a quick summary of some of the larger wildfires currently burning in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.


416 Fire (San Juan Mountains, north of Durango, CO)

The 416 Fire started on June 1, and has been burning for a month now and is only 37% contained. The cause of the fire remains unknown. The fire is located about 13 miles north of Durango and has burned 49,301 acres so far. The popular Durango-Silverton Scenic Railroad was forced to close due to the fire earlier in June, but has since opened back up with limited operations. Much of the San Juan Mountains have been impacted significantly by smoke from this fire.


Spring Creek Fire (Sangre de Christo area, near Ft. Garland, CO)

The Spring Creek Fire started on June 27, and has rapidly grown to 56,820 acres in less than a week with only 5% containment. This is currently the largest fire burning in Colorado. Unfortunately, this fire was human-caused and a suspect has been arrested and charged with arson. Extreme fire behavior in recent days has fueled rapid growth, with hot, dry, unstable, and windy conditions present. Gusty and erratic outflow winds from “dry” thunderstorms have impacted the area recently, and continue to be a concern during the first few days of July.


Badger Creek Fire (Wyoming/Colorado border in the Medicine Bow Mountains)

The Badger Creek Fire is located near the Colorado/Wyoming border in the Medicine Bow Mountains, and currently stands at 21,190 acres with all of this remaining on the Wyoming side of the border at this time. The fire started on June 10, but is now 80% contained. The cause of the fire remains unknown. Periodic hot, dry, and breezy conditions have continued to result in challenging fire behavior at times.


Trail Mountain Fire (SW of Price, UT)

The Trail Mountain Fire started on June 6, as prescribed burn that escaped its perimeter and ran out of control due to high winds.  The fire has grown to 17,811 acres and is now 85% contained.  However, hot, dry, and windy conditions across Utah this week will not help firefighters.


West Valley Fire (North of St. George, UT)

The West Valley Fire started on June 27 as a result of an unattended campfire.  The fire has quickly grown to 10,510 acres and is only 5% contained.  Hot and dry conditions over the upcoming week along with occasional gusty winds will result in challenging fire behavior.  There may be some hope on the horizon as longer range models project an increase in monsoonal moisture over Southern Utah during the second week of July.


North American Monsoon Outlook

With widespread drought conditions and place along with a significant amount of wildfire in the Southern Rockies, the seasonal North American Monsoon represents our best hope of seeing more meaningful moisture, as well as improving fire danger.  Long range models have consistently been projecting a more active than normal monsoon this summer.  However, the onset of a monsoonal is not happening quickly, and it may still take a while to really get going for some areas.

The first week of July is starting out dry region-wide, but there are some signs of increasing moisture in Arizona and Utah by the second week of July.  Initially, the Front Range of Colorado will see a temporary increase in moisture on Wednesday and Thursday as a backdoor cold front slides across the plains with increasing low level moisture along the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide.  The image below (courtesy of Tropical Tidbits) shows GFS-model projected precipitable water anomalies for Wednesday afternoon, with increased moisture pooling up against the Front Range and across Eastern Colorado.



However, upper level high pressure will quickly shift from the southeastern U.S. back west to the Four Corners Region heading into the weekend.  This pattern will cut off the flow to significant moisture across much of central and eastern Colorado.  The good news is that clockwise upper level flow around this high pressure center will begin to direct subtropical moisture into Arizona and Utah in about a week from now, which may very well signal the start of the monsoon.  The image below shows this ECMWF-model projected upper level high pressure center over Utah this upcoming weekend (image courtesy of Tropical Tidbits).



Some of this moisture may impact Western Colorado early next week as well, but as long as high pressure remains situated farther west, then much of the state will remain on the drier side.  There is some hope that by mid-month, the center of high pressure could become more favorably established over Arizona, New Mexico, or the Southern Plains, which would open the door for monsoonal moisture to stream into Colorado.

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