Published: June 28, 2013
Armed with clippers, a folding saw, handheld wind meter and 14 small tin cans packed loosely in a green backpack, Ashley Whitworth recently set out to determine the fire danger in Colorado Springs.
Whitworth, the lead fuels technician for Wildfire Mitigation with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, collects twigs, leaves and other fuel materials to test moisture content and determine fire behavior and danger.
"It gives us those trigger points so we'll be able to tell if a fire did happen what fire behavior we would possibly be looking at," she said.
Half of the samples are taken from the western edge of Mount St. Francis off West Woodmen Road and the other half by the Stratton Preserve gated community near Cheyenne Mountain High School.
Normally, between the end of April and October, Whitworth will collect samples every other week, but with fire restrictions and increased focus on fire danger, she is testing weekly.
"Especially if we're in burn restrictions or a burn ban we want that updated regularly," she said.
Whitworth spends about 20 minutes at each site picking up twigs, tearing at grass, sawing a small portion off a 2-inch thick log and clipping leaves and pine needles from nearby trees to fill all 14 tins with different fuel samples.
Smaller twigs, fallen leaves and fuels that burn quickly are at the highest risk because they're on the ground and the driest, Whitworth said. "Typically during the summer it stays the same," she added, reaching to tear off a couple oak leaves.
At the original Station 8 building off Airport and South Chelton roads, Whitworth weighs the samples before placing them inside a brown, 6.6 cubic foot thermal fiber insulated bench oven at 150 degrees for 24 hours. Weighing them again, she calculates the fuel moisture percentage.
"It's very similar to what we saw during the Hayman fire," said Christina Randall, the wildfire mitigation administrator with the fire department who uses the data to perform fire behavior modeling.
Randall is tasked with advising the fire marshal on fuel moisture - which this year is "critically low." The fire marshal passes along the information to the fire chief and mayor, where the decision is made to enact fire restrictions or bans. She also sends the information to the Colorado State Forest Service, U.S. Forest Service and El Paso County.
The fire danger levels seen at fire stations around town are based on fuel moisture thresholds and weather, said Randall, who updates fire danger daily on the department's website. She also looks at resource availability, regional fire activity and aircraft availability.
Red Flag warnings, however, are issued by the National Weather Service and are based on low relative humidity, strong winds and dry fuels. A warning means that critical fire weather conditions are occurring or will soon, while a watch indicates that they are in the forecast.
"Our weather, topography and fuel types are somewhat different than Black Forest's," said Sunny Smaldino, a spokeswoman with the city's fire department, which only monitors area within city limits.
The day after the Black Forest fire started in unincorporated El Paso County, the city announced fire restrictions. If and when the city enacts a burn ban, the fire department coordinates with El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa to ensure clear boundaries, Randall said, as the county maintains its own restrictions.
In recent weeks, moisture levels for some of the smaller fuels have been around 4 percent. Coupled with relative humidity that has often been in the single digits, fire danger is extreme, Randall added.
Randall expects the fuel moisture to remain low. "We haven't seen any nighttime recovery or increase in the humidities or any moisture to speak of, so I expect them to still be very low," she said.