Red flag warning triggers burning ban in La Plata County
A prolonged spring wind kicked up clouds of dust visible from space and bombarded parts of southwestern Colorado with 40-60 mph winds, leading to an increased fire risk and flag warnings red at the start of the season.
A burning ban was enforced Tuesday in La Plata County after the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for most of southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. The warning is due to expire at 11 p.m. Wednesday.
La Plata County automatically adopts burning restrictions equivalent to Level 1 fire restrictions when the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning, Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty said. Restrictions prohibit certain types of burning.
Plant life is re-vegetating with the onset of spring, but vegetation remains “super dry”, he said.
“Everyone who lives here has seen it and knows we are really suffering from the humidity,” he said.
The fire chief said Durango is in a cycle of drought, above-average temperatures, a lack of precipitation and lots of wind — all of which combine to increase fire danger.
“We’ve seen red flag warnings almost every day and fire weather watches on days when we don’t have a red flag warning,” he said. “And so, it all adds up to a huge potential for us to have a fire problem.”
The DFPD sent unique resource officers such as air traffic controllers to help crews fight wildfires in New Mexico, including the Calf Canyon Fire east of Santa Fe near Las Vegas. . But overall, the fire district keeps firefighting resources available and nearby in the event of a wildfire near Durango.
“With this wind and as dry as we are, I think there’s huge potential for us to have a big fire here,” Doughty said.
Windier than usual, but the end is in sight
Windy conditions are often associated with the onset of spring in the Durango area, but this year they lasted longer than usual, said Megan Stackhouse, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
“We normally see very windy conditions in the spring just because we are generally under the influence of the upper level (current) jet,” she said. “…But it’s been more persistent than usual.”
Stackhouse said spring winds normally set in in April, but this year and last year stronger winds persisted into May.
Higher-speed winds and gusts allow fires to easily spiral out of control, making agricultural burns unwise on windy days, she said.
Wind gusts from Sunday through Tuesday were recorded at more than 45 mph, with a peak gust of 56 mph on Sunday in the Durango area, she said.
On Tuesday, wind speeds averaged between 13 and 16 mph.
“The primary concern with red flag warnings is the spread of fire if there were any fires to develop with these types of 40 to 50 mph winds,” Stackhouse said. “These fires would take off without a problem. So it’s really a concern if there was a fire that started.
Winds blew from the southwest ahead of a deep low pressure system that fell in California on Tuesday and is expected to “dominate” the western United States as it slowly sinks south, she said.
The low pressure system is expected to build over the Great Basin from Wednesday evening through Thursday morning, and winds are expected to ease Thursday and Friday. The end is in sight for strong breezes and particularly windy conditions, she said.
Windy conditions are typical of these types of low-pressure systems, Stackhouse said, but nothing compared to what the area has seen in recent days. Spring showers can also bring windier weather. In Grand Junction, the weather service recorded its strongest recent wind gust at 60 mph after rain showers.
Dust and public health
Windswept curtains of dust darkened skies and limited visibility over the weekend in parts of southwestern Colorado. The dust plumes were visible in satellite images shared on social media over the weekend.
— Jon Harvey (@yeti_face) May 9, 2022
Brian Devine, director of environmental health at San Juan Basin Public Health, said he does not have air quality data as it relates to dust, but has not received no health advisories from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The CDPHE typically enters air quality health advisories, he said, although the SJBPH has also issued them in the past.
SJBPH said one of its main data sources was experiencing technical difficulties and was not reporting to the agency’s main monitoring system.
“The weather has certainly kicked up some dust, especially in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, but unfortunately not all of the monitors we rely on have reported recently,” Devine said. .
When the health department monitors air quality, it looks at data called the Air Quality Index. The AQI is determined by pollutant data collected at a monitoring station, which is analyzed and translated into a single number. An AQI of 100 equals the Clean Air Act standard for a certain type of pollution, Devine said. If the AQI exceeds 100, the health department may consider issuing an advisory.
The last air quality health advisory issued by the CDPHE for the Durango region was issued on April 22 and was for blown dust particles, he said.
“The standard type of recommendation and the one I see on this particular advice is that people with certain conditions – so people with heart or lung conditions, the elderly and children in the affected area – should reduce prolonged exertion or intense inside and out,” he said.
Devine said the guidance included in the advisory is generally good for blowing dust cases, even though an official health advisory has not been issued.