Jeff Derry knew Southwest Colorado could be in for a dangerous fire season as early as last fall.
Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies in Silverton, tracks storms in the San Juan Mountains, usually starting in October.
In a typical year, the center records an average of 12 snowstorms by the end of January. This year, however, the first snowstorms to hit the San Juan Mountains did not happen until January. When the month was over, only three storms had dropped modest amounts of snow in the high country.
“It was obvious that early on we were digging a hole,” Derry said. “Then we just never had a chance to get out of it.”
For the past few months, Southwest Colorado has been in a state of critical fire danger, prompting a series of fire restrictions throughout the region.
But restrictions are not a guarantee.
On June 1, a fire broke out in the San Juan National Forest about 10 miles north of Durango. The 416 Fire has been burning for eight days, has grown to 7,180 acres and required thousands of people to evacuate their homes, with hundreds more put on notice.
The stage was set for these intense fire conditions months ago.
For the past two years, Southwest Colorado has had normal water and snowpack years through the winter snow season and the summer monsoons resulting in periods of only relative fire danger.
But last fall, conditions took a turn. Between October and December, a weather station at the Durango-La Plata County Airport recorded 0.32 inches of precipitation, nearly 4 inches below those months’ historic averages.
Then, winter failed to show up. In the San Juan Mountains, the peak of the snowpack was only half of what the region usually receives based on more than 100 years of records.
A weather station on Molas Pass reported a peak of just 11 inches of water-snow equivalent this year, compared with the average of nearly 20 inches. And Red Mountain Pass, which usually sees 24 inches, peaked at around 14 inches.
Spring rains, too, were a no-show. As of Friday, that same weather station at the airport had recorded only 1.4 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1 – more than 4 inches below the historic average of 5.53 inches.
Many attribute the lack of precipitation in Southwest Colorado to the La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean, which is known for pushing storms farther north and leaving the American Southwest, literally, out to dry.
But the absence of moisture is only one part of the equation. Above average temperatures this spring caused what little snow there was to melt early, and consequently, fuels in the forest dried out earlier than usual.
From October to May, La Plata County was on average 3 degrees hotter than normal.
The Animas River, as a result, recorded the third lowest peak flow in recorded history, and one of its earliest peaks. While the Animas usually hits high flows in early June, this year the river rose to its highest level around May 11.
Southwest Colorado has been in various levels of drought since October, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Near the end of April, the region was placed into the most extreme category of drought.
These conditions caused Southwest Colorado to enter critical fire conditions by April. The entire corner of the state was under Stage 1 fire restrictions by May 1, and that was upgraded to Stage 2 last week.
Now, the region is bracing for what could be a tough few weeks – June is historically the driest month of the year.
“It can’t be reiterated enough times what kind of a situation we’re in and how people have to be aware of what they’re doing in their lives on a daily basis,” said Carey Newman with the San Juan National Forest.
It looks as if the monsoon – the rainy season – is the only hope for changing the current weather pattern. But it’s unclear when the rains will arrive.
However, there is reason to be optimistic: The Climate Prediction Center says Southwest Colorado has about a 40 percent chance of receiving above average precipitation from July to September, according to a May 17 report.