While wildfires started early in Montezuma County this year, with juniper trees torching in a human-caused wildfire in January, the low humidity, high temperature, and drying fuels of summer set the stage for wildfires that grow quickly with the southwest winds. To kick off a series of summer guest columns on wildfire preparedness, following is a quick guide to prevention.
While spring thunderstorms ignite a few fires, the majority of wildfires are started by people before the monsoons arrive. Unfortunately, human-caused fires also tend to be larger and more destructive than natural wildfires. While lightening is usually accompanied by some moisture and strikes high places where smoke is visible, human caused fires can happen anytime, anywhere.
Between the beginning of March and the middle of May, the Cortez Fire District responded to 24 wildfire calls. These were primarily open burns that got out of control.
Fire is an incredible tool unique to mankind, and we have the opportunity to use it wisely. By observing that a fire cannot burn without heat, fuel, and oxygen, we can more carefully plan open burns so that the only fuel available for the fire is the fuel we are trying to burn and sufficient water or dirt is available to fully extinguish the fire. A checklist of general tips is available here, but controlling open burns is a skill to be learned from more than a newspaper clipping.
With the growing season underway and the combination of weather and fuel conditions aligning to create extreme fire growth potential (Red Flag days), this is generally the end of the agricultural and slash pile burning season until cooler temperatures and higher relative humidity arrive in the fall. However, a campfire is just a smaller (hopefully) version of a pile burn and coals blowing out of unattended or not fully extinguished campfires become common ignition sources for wildfires as the grasses, needles, and leaves dry out and residents are enjoying more activities outdoors and avoiding cooking indoors. Consider your campfires an open burn and follow open burning rules for setting up a safe campfire and making sure your fire is dead out.
A small spark can be a sufficient source of heat to start a roaring wildfire. This is why our outdoor tools and toys such as ATVs, motorcycles, chain-saws, and tractors are equipped with spark arrestors. Even a hot tailpipe can ignite dry fuels. A scientific study of “Ignitions by Rifle Bullets” by the Rocky Mountain Research Station proved that the kinetic energy of a bullet becomes thermal energy when the bullets deform from hitting a hard surface. Steel core and jacketed bullets as well as copper bullets reliably started fires when the deformed bullets landed on fine dry fuels. Smoldering cigarette butts, damaged power lines, and electrical fences are a few other sources of human caused ignitions to be on the alert for. As Voltaire put it, “with great power comes great responsibility.” As we all share the ability to create fire, let’s all work together to ensure its responsible use this summer, and always. If you have any wildfire preparedness questions or ideas, call me at 564-7860.
Rebecca Samulski is the Wildfire Prevention and Education Specialist for the Montezuma County Fire Chiefs’ Association and also serves as the Montezuma and Dolores County Chapter Coordinator for FireWise of Southwest Colorado.