Be prepared

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Snowpack in the South Platte River Basin, encompassing Boulder County, is at 68 percent of average, just 1 percent above where it stood on this same date in 2002.

That's a year Coloradans don't want to see repeated.

The year 2002 long will be remembered as marking one of Colorado's worst wildfire seasons in recent memory, having produced the epic Hayman Fire.

That inferno devastated more than 138,000 acres about 95 miles southwest of Denver, torching 133 homes and consuming $40 million in firefighting costs.

At the height of the 2002 blaze, which roared from early June well into July, Boulder County residents could walk outside and find fine ash drifting down on them from the fire burning far south of Denver.

Local conditions now are as unfavorable as they were this time, that year.

"Considering the weather and the (dry condition of the) fuels, I'm concerned," said Jay Stalnacker, fire management officer for Boulder County.

"I think we're in position, if things don't change, to be revisiting the 2000 or 2002 fire season in Colorado, and that is not a good sign."

Four major wildfires in Boulder County since 1989 collectively have destroyed more than 250 homes and burned more than 16,000 acres, with the most recent, the Fourmile Fire, still vivid in many people's memories.

The snowpack situation on the Front Range is even more dire than it is across the rest of Colorado.

The statewide snowpack is at 77 percent of average, according to Michael Strobel, director of the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore.

"Even now, with some good storms, it would be hard to make up," Strobel said.

Strobel said streamflow in the South Platte River basin is at 50 percent to 69 percent of average.

"Our water supply shows another tough year for us," Strobel said.

'Nothing above average'

At least Boulder is not seeing a repeat of March 2012, when it recorded no measurable snow for what is typically its snowiest month.

This month, the city so far stands at 11.9 inches of snow. The monthly average is 17. But far more is needed.

"We don't see a great deal of moisture in the picture. We expect nothing above average for the next few months... so we could see an early (fire) season," said Nezette Rydell, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Boulder, which is observing Colorado Flood Safety and Wildfire Awareness Week.

"We are already having fire activity earlier than in many years."

Indeed, today marks the first day of spring, but the wildfire season did not even wait for the departure of winter, with a significant blaze kicking up just to the north of Boulder County last week.

The 1,348-acre Galena Fire in Larimer County by Tuesday had been declared at 85 percent containment, with the number of firefighters still on the blaze at 80.

With the conditions that the Front Range now sees in place, it could happen here -- at any time.

"For example, today is a red flag day," Stalnacker said Tuesday, meaning that conditions were ideal for wildfire ignition.

"It's not due to high temperatures. It's a 45-to-50-degree day. But we have no moisture, and wind gusts up to 30 mph. This is when we get our big fires.

"With the wind, and the human factor, we are really concerned," he added. "It's going to be like this, with red flag (warnings) and high-wind watches, every three or four days. For the next two months, without moisture, we are one ignition away from a disaster, as the Larimer fire demonstrated."

Education and outreach

Boulder County has a number of initiatives in place aimed at lowering the chances for another calamity.

One is the county's Community Chipping Reimbursement program. The county has secured, in the program's first round, $15,000 in grants to help five selected communities organize events -- which also have an educational component -- to help residents dispose of their slash, promoting fire mitigation through removing vegetation to create more defensible space around homes.

The communities participating in this round are Coal Creek Canyon, St. Anton's, Crestview Estates, Sugarloaf and the Magnolia neighborhood.

Ryan Ludlow, outreach forester for the Boulder County Land Use Department, said the county last year conducted 10 wildfire mitigation programs that drew more than 330 people -- far greater attendance than in past years.

Coming up May 11, the county will present a "fire-wise landscaping" workshop in Nederland, partnering with the town, the Colorado State Forest Service and extension offices of Colorado State University.

"We strongly believe through our education and outreach that we can give landowners the tools they need to implement effective mitigation on their land," Ludlow said.

In addition, the county is promoting a "sort yard" program, with two locations, one outside Nederland and the other at Allenspark, where people can dispose of slash cut from their land free of charge.

The Allenspark/Meeker Park sort yard will have hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 24 through June 15, with additional hours later in the summer. The Nederland area location will have spring hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 through July 6, with more days later in the fall.

Officials believe these and other initiatives give Boulder County a fighting chance, heading into a volatile time of year.

But nature and fate will have plenty to say about the reality of the months ahead.

"The lack of moisture and the recent winds and warm temperature always get my hackles up, and then when you see large fires in neighbor counties, it's troubling," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.

"It's just a fickle beast. It depends on the weather, completely."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or