USA — Firefighters hope to contain a wildfire burning in the tinder-dry foothills west of Denver by the weekend, but continued dry weather has authorities worried about what could be a long fire season.
The fire burning on just over 2 square miles in rugged canyons just outside Golden about 15 miles west of downtown Denver was at least 25 percent contained Thursday.
Authorities say 289 homes are in the immediate area but none were considered to be immediately threatened by the fire. No homes have been destroyed and evacuation orders have been lifted.
Winds and extremely dry weather helped the fire to take off when it started on Sunday, and the winds have periodically grounded helicopters that can drop water on the blaze, now listed at 1,500 acres. Choppers were able to fly Wednesday afternoon but winds were expected to pick up again Thursday, with gusts up to 40 mph in the foothills in the afternoon.
The risk of new fires starting and spreading was high from central Colorado from the Denver area south into northern New Mexico, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning for the area Thursday.
Meteorologists say wildfires are common this time of year, when strong wind persist and vegetation is dry. Compounding that was a severe drought affecting most of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains, including the Denver metropolitan area, the U.S. Drought Monitor said.
Fire incident commander Rowdy Muir, who has been in the job for nine years, said this is the earliest his team has ever been mobilized. Colorado could be in for a repeat of the 2002 season, when the largest wildfire in state history burned 215 square miles, he said. A total of 515 square miles burned statewide that year.
“If we don’t see any moisture this spring, I think you’re going to see a lot of fire in this Rocky Mountain region,” he said.
State climatologist Nolan Doesken said precipitation in the foothills and on Colorado’s Eastern Plains has been at 50 percent of average or below since August.
Compounding things is the fact that moisture has been spread out in occassional small storms. There has been no substantial, widespread precipitation event that would put down a lot of moisture.
At least five Colorado counties have enacted fire bans while the strong winds and low humidity last.
In Longmont, northwest of Denver, a small grass fire that started Wednesday morning east of U.S. 36 grew to 7 acres before it was contained. A fire scorched 300 acres of grass near La Junta in southeast Colorado before it was contained.