Open burning in unincorporated Boulder County

Burns that require a permit: Slash piles (typically vegetative matter in a pile no more than 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall) and "broadcast," or prescribed burns, typically done to reduce wildfire fuel loads, restore ecological health to an area or clear weds.

Burns that don't require a permit: Agricultural burns to prepare soil for crop production or livestock grazing, recreational fires for noncommercial cooking, or instructional or religious purposes such as bonfires or sweat lodges.

Other exempted burns: Tiki torches, propane grills, propane lanterns, fires in indoor or outdoor fireplaces, candles, kerosene heaters.

More info: Call the Boulder County Sheriff's Office fire management information hotline at 303-441-4500.

Quiet wildfire years on the Front Range

2007: 365 acres burned

2014: 528 acres burned (to date)

1999: 689 acres burned

1993:1,235 acres burned

1998: 1,787 acres burned

1992: 2,370 acres burned

Source: Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center

In a summer where much discussion still centers on flood recovery, Boulder County has been lucky enough to hear very little about another environmental danger its citizens live with much of the year.


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The summer is nearing an end with no major fire having afflicted the area this season. In fact, the last wildfire of any significance in the county was the Flagstaff Fire of June 2012, when more than 300 acres near the intersection of Flagstaff Road and Bison Drive in the Walker Ranch area were scorched after a lightning strike.

Summer 2014 has been somewhat more moist and cooler than the Front Range has seen in recent years. But Jay Stalnacker, fire management officer for Boulder County, said that while the weather has helped suppress immediate fire dangers, those same conditions have fed into a more long-range concern.

"Our concern locally is really what the moisture and the rain and green-up is doing to our fuels," Stalnacker said. "Our main fire carrier is the grass and our brushes. That's truly what causes our fire to spread. Our concern is the tall grasses; we have not seen grass this high, I think, in 10-plus years."

At numerous locations throughout the county, he said, wild grasses have grown 4 to 6 feet high; that could be volatile fuel, once autumn arrives with its occasionally robust, drying winds.

Another danger is not environmental. It is human nature.

"A lot of complacency has developed after a long summer of no fire," Stalnacker said, noting that he is hearing of more cases of carelessness such as campfires being left unattended.

"The message is really about we need to be aware that the fire season is not over," he said. "We need to be cautious with fire, when we're using it. Our biggest concern is education to the public. We really want to make sure ... our recreationalists, our hunters, our campers, our homeowners doing open-burning of their slash piles and mitigation work, those are the folks we need to concentrate on."

'It's been one of our least active years'

Janice Coen is a project scientist and meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and studies wildfires.

"It hasn't been a typical year, for sure," Coen said. "You see a lot of heavy growth in the grasses, and I'm really seeing a lot of plants that I haven't seen before in my 20 years in Colorado. It's not been a typical year for fires either."

She pointed out that two of the largest fires in recent Colorado history, the Hayman Fire of 2002 and the Hyde Park Fire of 2012 occurred in June — the Black Forest Fire of 2013 also started in June — and were products of dry early summer weather matched with robust winds not normally associated with that month on the Front Range.

"We had windstorms that coincided with those fires, and that's why they grew so big and were so destructive," said Coen. "Windstorms are very unusual for us in June. Our windstorms are usually in December and January."

The Front Range is part of a larger trend nationally in the summer of 2014. Through Wednesday, there have been 37,119 fires of 100 acres or more in size in the United States this year, burning just over 2.6 million acres. Data averaged over the past decade shows that typically by now, there would have been almost 53,000 such fires, burning almost 5.45 million acres.

On the Front Range, "It's been one of our least active years," said Russ Mann, a fire weather meteorologist at the interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood.

"We had a high snowpack coming into the early spring and then we were wet in the spring. We had some short dry spells, but then it has just been wet," Mann said. "We had a good green-up from the winter and spring precipitation, and usually that green-up keeps our fire behavior down, until things start to cure out."

A wet July, but a summer with fewer lightning strikes

Meteorologist Matt Kelsch said that while June in Boulder was dry — the 0.84 inches of rain was less than half the monthly average of 2.08 inches — July was wet. Boulder in July saw 4.57 inches of rain, more than twice the monthly average of 1.81 inches. July 29 and 30 combined for 3.2 inches of the month's rain total.

And, according to the National Lightning Detection Network, owned and operated by Vaisala Inc., in Tucson, Ariz., Boulder County has seen its third-lowest total of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes — 2,055 — for June 1 through Aug. 19, of any year in the past decade.

Kelsch, who said the Boulder area has continued to feel the effects of the deep soaking of the 2013 flood, sees no dramatic departure from this season's trends on the near horizon.

"This weekend and next week we're going to be going into below-average temps, so that will keep evaporation down a little bit," said Kelsch. Temperatures should slip into the 70s for several days, starting Sunday.

Mann agreed with Stalnacker, the county fire management officer, that the greatest danger now could come from the bounteous wild grasses.

"If we get into a dry and windy fall, then the fuel load is there, and we could have an elevated grassfire season this fall," Mann said.

Although grass fires are not typically as much of a drain on resources as forest fires, Mann said: "With the fuel loading we have, it's still a concern. That's definitely something we'll have to watch for and be aware of in September and October."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com