Grass fire near Colorado Springs could be precursor to another dangerous fire season

By: matt steiner
March 27, 2014 Updated: March 27, 2014 at 2:44 pm
photo - A fire burned west of Monument on Wednesday. (Via Twitter, @PeakingFox and KOAA,
A fire burned west of Monument on Wednesday. (Via Twitter, @PeakingFox and KOAA, 

While many sections of the Colorado mountains continue to get pummeled with snow, dry and windy conditions in El Paso County have begun to bring a glimpse of what the 2014 wildfire season could be.

The first substantial blaze struck the Pikes Peak region Wednesday night as almost 100 acres burned in a grass fire in the southeast part of the county. Seven local fire districts responded to the blaze that ignited near Drennan and Milne roads about 8:30 p.m.

As firefighters brought the blaze under control in less than two hours, snow began to fall near Monarch Pass, Buena Vista, Summit County and other areas to the west. Some mountain regions saw double-digit figures of snowfall overnight with Monarch Mountain ski area getting 10 inches and Crested Butte reporting 14 inches. While a winter storm warning remained in the mountains, a red-flag warning continued in the southeastern part of the state.

On Thursday, the National Weather Service kept the red-flag warning in effect for Pueblo County and areas further south.

The contrast in weather conditions illustrates a pattern that has been prevalent in the state for the past 10 years, National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Magnuson said. According to Magnuson, heavy snow in early spring is crucial to taming conditions that could send area firefighters scrambling in early summer to keep fire under control.

Magnuson looked at recent observations for the Pikes Peak region and at predictions for the rest of March and early April and expressed concern.

March is usually Colorado Springs' snowiest month with an average snowfall of 8.1 inches. This year, however, the city has only seen 2.8 inches of the wet, white stuff this month with only four full days remaining in March.

"We've hardly had anything, so it's already beginning to dry out," Magnuson said. "The weather pattern is not real favorable."

The meteorologist from the weather service's Pueblo office said that over the past decade the pattern has been consistent. In years that rain and snow has been plentiful in the summer, fall and winter, dry springs have quickly dried out brush and timber that grew with the added moisture. Magnuson said all that does is create more fuels to burn.

"It just seems you can't win out here," he said.

A spokesman for the Ellicott Fire Department said that high winds played a factor in the spread of Wednesday night's blaze. Some residents had to evacuate. Information about the evacuations was not available Thursday morning.

According to Magnuson, April and May typically come with increased storms in Colorado. But if those storms hit elsewhere in the state like they did Wednesday night, the Pikes Peak region will typically get strong winds that add to dangerous, dry circumstances. Those dry conditions led to the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 and the Black Forest fire in 2013. More than 18,000 acres of forest burned during the Wald Canyon blaze and 14,000 burned in northern El Paso County in the 2013 fire.

Weather service forecasters expect a slight chance of precipitation through Thursday in El Paso and Teller counties, but the rain and snow will likely not be enough to make an impact. Thursday's high is expected to reach the mid 50s in Colorado Springs with winds around 15 to 20 mph.

Breezy conditions are expected to continue through the weekend and into early next week with no sign of precipitation expected through Wednesday.

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