A dry summer has put Southwest Colorado back into “abnormally dry” conditions on the U.S. Drought Monitor.
A map released July 20 shows almost all of Montezuma County, the south half of La Plata County and the southwest portion of Archuleta County in the abnormally dry status.
Before that, the last time Southwest Colorado appeared on the map with any kind of drought conditions was March 14.
Precipitation has been well below average so far this summer.
Durango-La Plata County Airport has received only 0.38 inches since June 1, a full inch below the average of 1.38 inches. A rain gauge at Cortez Municipal Airport has registered only 0.44 inches of rain, well below its average of 1.13 inches at this point in July.
According to the NWS Hydrologic Prediction Service, Pagosa Springs has received 0.1 to 0.5 inches of precipitation in the last 60 days.
National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Aleksa said Southwest Colorado could easily be relieved of its abnormally dry drought status with a couple of substantial storms.
He said monsoonal moisture is looking more likely in early August.
The NWS seven-day forecast indicates a 50% chance of rain on Saturday with showers also likely on Sunday. Temperatures are predicted to drop into the 80s next week, which is another indicator that moisture could be on its way.
Overall, Southwest Colorado’s drought outlook has been positive with the San Juan Mountains snowpack reaching 170% above normal this past winter. Aleksa said he is optimistic about the region’s drought conditions despite an extremely dry July.
He said lightning is the major concern with the abnormally dry drought conditions.
Durango Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Karola Hanks said there haven’t been many fires started by lightning this summer, but it is something fire teams are always evaluating.
As of Wednesday, La Plata County was in stage one fire restrictions. Hanks said unnecessary use of fire should be avoided and that people should be cognizant of potential fuels around them during dry spells.
Chain saws and lawn mowers are also a concern during dry weather, because they can create sparks if they come into contact with rocks, which could start fires.
“It is always a concern of us when it’s dry,” Hanks said. “Right now, we monitor those weather conditions on a daily basis, and try to look a couple days, sometimes weeks, into the future.”
Especially combustible fuels include cheatgrass and other tall grasses. Cotton fluff, which has been prevalent in the Animas Valley, also ignites easily.
When it catches fire, it will have a faint blue color and burns quickly, she said. However, if it is near other fuels when it ignites, a fire can breakout quickly.
She also worries about trucks, trailers and recreational vehicles that might drag chains. The chains spark as they hit pavement, which can spark fires along the side of the road.