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Nearly half of Colorado emerges from drought conditions while Western Slope remains dry and at risk for fire

Precipitation has quenched 48% of the state even as the Western Slope dries out

Low water levels of Lake Granby on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Granby. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Recent rainfall has been a boon for eastern Colorado. The Front Range has enjoyed abundant precipitation and nearly half of the state’s geographic area has shed drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But the Western Slope hasn’t been blessed with the same precipitation levels, leaving a brutal drought and a high risk for fire to worry about. 

Assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger said it’s typical for conditions on one side of the Continental Divide to differ from the other. And western Colorado usually gets more precipitation than the east because of the jet stream.

 The current conditions concern Bolinger.

“I would be very surprised if we make it through June, without seeing a large wildfire somewhere in western Colorado,” she said.

Bolinger predicts snowpack to the west will melt by the end of the month. That snow from the mountains is crucial to filling rivers and reservoirs, but hasn’t topped them off because it’s making up for previous dry conditions.

Last water year, October 2019 to September 2020, ended hot and dry. Bolinger said precipitation and melting snowpack has had to rehydrate dry soils before it can flow into waterways, leading to record low streamflows

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From there, a combination of drier vegetation, hotter days with low humidity, and wind will combine to create a “very noticeable risk for large wildfires.” 

Bolinger said drought conditions in the state are common and are often briefly interrupted by wet periods.

“It really just takes one hot summer, and consistent lack of thunderstorm activity, to start drying things out again,” she said. 

Outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center suggest Colorado is headed for another hot and dry summer. On average, June is the driest time of year for southwest Colorado, where relief won’t come until the onset of the summer monsoon season. Bolinger said thunderstorms can pop up anywhere, even in dry conditions, that could provide some relief. 

“It’s really just dependent right now on the latitude of where you are and how much snowpack you have left,” Bolinger said, “but at some point this summer, I think every single location in western Colorado will be at risk for a large wildfire.”


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