The snowstorm that fell over Colorado this weekend – dumping more than two feet in some places – offered the parched state some much-needed moisture but also complicated the state’s wildfire conditions later this summer, experts say.
Snow with an especially high moisture content snapped tree limbs large and small across much of the state. Ultimately the storm knocked out power for more than 210,000 people.
Despite the damage, a common refrain across the drought-stricken state is that we need the moisture. And we do.
But the storm also likely increased the number of dead trees, branches, leaves and other plants that tend to fuel wildfires, environmental scientists say. That’s an extra factor to consider ahead of what state officials said could be the worst wildfire year in state history.
“Precipitation is a double-edged sword,” Jonathan Coop, a forest ecologist with Western Colorado University told The Denver Post.
Damaged trees and branches can create an immediate wildfire risk because they can knock down power lines, Natasha Stavros, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Earth Lab Analytics Hub, said. And then once they’re on the ground they dry out further, serving as possible fuels for fires in the area.
“We’re still in a massive drought,” Stavros said.
Fallen trees and branches take longer to dry but are precisely the type of materials that campers use for campfires, making them ideal wildfire fuel, Stavros said. Leaves on those branches dry out much quicker, turning into what experts call “flashy fuels,” which ignite easily.
The moisture can help plants grow quickly too, only to dissipate and leave behind dried foliage, adding to wildfire risk.
With all the potential for more wildfire fuels around the state, Stavros said it’s important for cities, counties and land managers to clear the fallen trees and limbs responsibly. Otherwise, they’ll stay where they fell, drying.
There’s also an unknown number of trees and branches that fell deep in Colorado’s forests that likely can’t be cleaned up immediately, Stavros added.
Or they might not be cleaned up at all, Coop said, especially with the federal moratorium on prescribed burns.
On Friday U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore imposed a 90-day hold on prescribed burns after one such burn grew out of control this late last month, torching more than 300,000 acres and hundreds of buildings in northern New Mexico.
As of Monday that fire was still burning and less than 50% contained.
Banning prescribed burns isn’t a winning strategy, Stavros said. Those that burn out of control, like Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, are rare. From a practical standpoint, prescribed fires are one of the best ways land managers can control wildfire fuels, burning them responsibly rather than allowing them to accumulate.
Coop added, though, that while the prescribed burn ban is likely counterproductive, it covers a period of time when land managers typically aren’t igniting controlled fires anyway.
Parts of the state also saw little to no moisture during the storms, Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, said. She pointed to the southwest corner of Colorado, where nearly all of the snowpack has already melted, as an example.
And other parts might have been damaged by the freezing temperatures, particularly winter wheat crops on the Eastern Plains, Bolinger said.
The snowfall will make a dent — albeit a small one — in Colorado’s ongoing drought conditions, though it wasn’t nearly enough to erase the dry conditions altogether, Bolinger said.
May is typically Colorado’s wettest month, she added, and the storms will likely push the state’s precipitation totals close to average levels for the month. Aside from any complications the storm might have brought, the extra water is welcome.
“This is a net positive,” Bolinger said. “Any time we get moisture is a good thing.”
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