Drier than 2012?

Seasonal fire crews will be here soon

As the WEBER fire raged along the rim, a thousand points of light werevisible from smoldering embers along Weber Canyon  last June. Enlargephoto

Journal File/Sam Green

As the WEBER fire raged along the rim, a thousand points of light werevisible from smoldering embers along Weber Canyon last June.

The deadly combination of below-normal precipitation and warmer-than-normal temperatures has local fire officials on edge and preparing for an active fire season.

Last year's Weber Fire, which burned 10,000 acres in Montezuma County, is still fresh in everyone's minds, but officials say this season could be worse.

"This fire season will just as bad as last year, if not worse, especially with the moisture levels on the western slope," said Jeff Vandevoorde, fire chief for the Cortez Fire Protection District.

The forecast for water inflow into McPhee Reservoir this year is 43 percent of average, said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

The mountains have below-average snowpack and what precipitation does run down is seeping into the extremely dry soil, he said.

The snowpack is running between 70 and 80 percent of normal, said Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, based in Grand Junction.

The wind and fluctuating temperatures diminish the snowpack further.

"At least through May and into June, we're probably going to have a higher-than-normal fire activity," Cuoco said. "The wild card there is how much lightning and rain we'll get when the storms start."

If the area doesn't have enough moisture, the lightning could spark more fires in the monsoon season, which typically starts in July.

While the area is dry, Southwest Colorado is better off than many other areas in the state and is listed as experiencing a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Colorado tends to get heavy storms in March, but this year's weather has left the state barren.

Southwest Colorado is expected to get scattered rain showers and thunderstorms on Sunday with a stronger storm moving in on Monday, Cuoco said.

The storm could give higher elevations a "decent amount" of rain, but meteorologists aren't expecting any big storms after that.

The region could see a fire ban earlier in the season due to the dry conditions, Vandevoorde said.

Fire officials are starting to bring in crews that will be here throughout the summer.

The Bureau of Land Management has some seasonal staff starting in about a week with the rest of the seasonal staff starting April 22, said Scott McDermid, a fire management officer with the Dolores Public Lands office.

Three engine trucks will also be staffed out of Dolores seven days a week this summer, and the single-engine air tanker base in Cortez will be up and running at the beginning of May.

The 20-person San Juan hot-shot crew based out of Durango will be available later this month.

jdahl@durangoherald.com