Local wilderness fire being left alone
Despite a wildfire burning on the Grand Mesa and one in the West Elk wilderness, the grey sky citizens saw last weekend isn’t coming from anywhere around here. Blame it on California. This is the time of year a bit of a haze can always be expected to affect views of the next mountain range, but it seemed particularly thick on Saturday and Sunday, July 12 and 13. While the skies seemed to clear up by Tuesday, the weekend brought constant haze to the normally blue skies of the Gunnison Valley.
It is fire season in the American West, and that can mean smoke in California, Nevada or New Mexico can translate to reduced views in our local mountain valleys.
Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction, says ‘tis the season. “The hazy skies from fires are normal this time of year,” he says. “I think last weekend, the haze was primarily from the fires in California. I don’t really think the smoke from the fire activity on the Grand Mesa over here is making it to the Gunnison Valley.”
Certain weather conditions can bring the effects of the California wildfires close to home.
The California fires, which have been burning since last week, have threatened hundreds of homes and displaced a quarter million people. Santa Ana winds carried the smoke across the West over the weekend.
“When the airflow is right, the smoke gets locked into the mountain valleys in central Colorado,” explains Cuoco. “Visibility can go to about ten miles, which in a lot of places in the country isn’t too bad, but you really notice it in the mountains.”
According to a U.S. Forest Service press release, the Gunnison Ranger District of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest is also managing a fire burning in the West Elk Wilderness. The fire was ignited by a lightning strike and was reported July 1. The fire is burning in an area with steep, rocky and rugged terrain, requiring firefighters to hike for several hours cross-country to access it.
The Gunnison District Ranger made the determination to manage the fire under a “confinement” strategy. District ranger Jim Dawson says, “This fire is a higher elevation fire, with cooler temperatures and higher humidity than some of the areas around us. We will ‘confine’ this fire until such time that we can safely and cost-effectively suppress it and/or until our typical—for this time of year—monsoon rains arrive in the area.”
The press release goes on to state that when smoke from the California fires clears from the area, smoke from the West Elk fire will be visible from Highway 50 and to boaters on Blue Mesa reservoir. Signs that a wildfire is in progress are posted in the area and National Parks Service campground hosts have been notified and advised.
The fire is currently estimated at 65 acres and burning in very rough and relatively inaccessible terrain. There are no trails in the area and the closest private land is about four miles to the south-southwest. The current fire danger rating for Gunnison County is high.