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Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado shows the effect of a low snowpack year on June 2, 2021. The reservoir is at 48% capacity and although it is rising with snowmelt at a rate of about 1.5 feet a day, it is not expected to fill this year. All the ground shown in this photo should normally be covered with water. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun).

As drought conditions worsened on the Western Slope, the National Weather Service has issued its first “extremely critical” fire danger warning in 15 years for northwest Colorado.

The warning, in effect through midnight, covers parts of Moffat and Rio Blanco counties that also are in a state of “exceptional drought,” according to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report.

About 45% of Colorado, all west of the Continental Divide, now is in some state of drought, with 17.5% falling into the category of exceptional drought, up from 16.4% last week. Most of western Colorado, stretching from the Wyoming border south to New Mexico, falls into the two most severe categories, making the region at risk for extreme damage to crops, blows to the outdoor recreational industry and large wildfires.

Another period of unseasonably hot conditions for northwest Colorado is forecast for the coming week, with temperatures likely to reach potentially record-breaking highs in the 100s, starting Sunday, according to the weather service.

The heat wave has set the stage for wildfires, said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center.

“When you’re looking at low water supplies to begin with, you kind of hate to see these heat waves because it ramps up the rate at which the crops and forested areas use the water they received during the spring,” Goble said.

The weather service also issued a red flag warning for the Western Slope Thursday as wind gusts between 35 to 55 mph could make a potential wildfire difficult to control, especially in northwest Colorado.

While Goble said he isn’t ready to declare the fire conditions this summer as dangerous as they were last year, the risk is definitely high. Last year, the state saw three of the worst wildfires on record, including the Cameron Peak fire, which scorched more than 208,000 acres.  

“I think that we’re in a more dangerous situation than normal and we need to be prepared for a bad fire season,” Goble said. “I’m not ready to call it another 2020.” 

Because last year was so dry, causing below-average soil moisture at higher elevations, a higher amount of snowpack is needed to replenish the soil before the water can run off to fill the rivers, Goble said. 

“Our forested areas were very stressed last summer as we had an unprecedented fire season. And then we had below normal snowpack this year. So you know, the forests are gonna take all they can get out of that snow melt,” the climatologist said. 

Decent rainfall during the monsoon season in late July and August could provide some relief, Goble said, but “won’t fix the situation.”

One of the drought’s great impacts can be seen along the Yampa River, which flows through northwest Colorado, Goble said. For the third time since 2018, farmers who rely on the river to irrigate crops are required to reduce their usage. The river’s flows have dropped significantly over the years as the drought has dragged on, he said.

“It was a river that for many, many years was somewhat magic, and even when Colorado was in drought, there were never curtailments enforced in terms of how much folks who have water rights on the river could irrigate,” he said.

Now, the Yampa is flirting with record lows, Goble said. Water levels at McPhee Reservoir north of Cortez, which is fed by the Dolores River, are at their lowest in 35 years.

Goble urged caution during the high fire danger, especially in Colorado’s drought-stricken areas. Earlier this week, lightning started a wildfire just north of the Colorado state line in Wyoming, about two miles north of the border with Routt County.

Northeast of Palisade, crews are battling the roughly 500-acre Beaver Tail fire. Fire crews on Tuesday suppressed a wildfire on Cottonwood Pass on Forest Service land near Gypsum. Smoke from large wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico is spreading across the Western Slope.

“We’re not without any agency here,” Goble said. “If you use water wisely and follow any burn bans that are in place, that can really help.”

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.