A prolonged spring wind has kicked up clouds of dust visible from space and pelted parts of Southwest Colorado with 40 to 60 mph winds, leading to heightened fire danger and early season red flag warnings.
A burn ban was applied across La Plata County on Tuesday after the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for most of Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. The warning is scheduled to expire at 11 p.m. Wednesday.
La Plata County automatically adopts burn restrictions equivalent to Stage 1 fire restrictions when the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning, said Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty. The restrictions prohibit certain kinds of burning.
Plant life is greening up with the arrival of spring, but vegetation remains “super dry,” he said.
“Everybody that lives here has seen it and knows we’re really hurting for moisture,” he said.
The fire chief said Durango is in a cycle of drought, above-average temperatures, a lack of precipitation and plenty of wind – all of which combine to heighten fire danger.
“We’ve been seeing red flag warnings almost every day and fire weather watches on the days that we don’t have red flag warnings,” he said. “And so, all of that stuff adds up to just huge potential for us to have a fire problem.”
DFPD has sent single resource officers such as air traffic controllers to assist crews battling wildfires in New Mexico, including the Calf Canyon Fire east of Santa Fe near Las Vegas. But by and large, the fire district is keeping firefighting resources available and close by in the event of a wildfire near Durango.
“With this wind and as dry as we are, I think there is huge potential for us to have a significant fire here,” Doughty said.
Windy conditions are often associated with the arrival of spring in the Durango area, but this year they have lasted longer than usually, said Megan Stackhouse, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
“We normally do see very windy conditions in the spring just because we’re usually under the influence of the upper-level jet (stream),” she said. “... But it has been more persistent than usual.”
Stackhouse said spring winds normally settle down in April, but this year and last year stronger winds have persisted well into May.
Winds and higher speed gusts allow fires to easily get out of control, making agriculture burns during windy days unwise, she said.
Wind gusts Sunday through Tuesday were recorded to be higher 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 main concern with red flag warnings is fire spread if there were any fires to develop with these kinds of 40 to 50 mph winds,” Stackhouse said. “Those fires would just take off with no problem. So it’s really a concern if there was a fire that started.”
The winds have blown in from the southwest ahead of a deep low-pressure system that dropped into 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 rise over the Great Basin on Wednesday night into Thursday morning, and winds are expected to slow down Thursday and Friday. The end is in sight for strong breezes and particularly windy conditions, she said.
Breezy conditions are typical for these sorts of low-pressure systems, Stackhouse said, but nothing compared to what the area has experienced the last several days. Spring showers can also cause windier weather. In Grand Junction, the Weather Service clocked its strongest recent wind gust at 60 mph after rain showers.
Curtains of dust stirred by the winds clouded the skies and limited visibility over the weekend in parts of Southwest Colorado. The dust plumes were visible in satellite images shared on social media over the weekend.
Brian Devine, environmental health director at San Juan Basin Public Health, said he didn’t have air-quality data as it relates to the dust, but he didn’t receive any health advisories from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The CDPHE generally enters air-quality health advisories, he said, although SJBPH has also issued them in the past.
SJBPH said one of its main data sources is experiencing technical difficulties and is not reporting into the agency’s main monitoring system.
“The weather certainly has been stirring up some dust, especially in northwest New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, but unfortunately, not all of the monitors that we would rely on have been reporting recently,” Devine said.
When the health department monitors air quality, it looks at data called an air quality index. The AQI is determined by data about pollutants collected at a monitoring station, which are analyzed and translated into a single number. An AQI of 100 is equal to the Clean Air Act’s standard for a certain type of pollution, Devine said. If the AQI surpasses 100, the health department may consider issuing an advisory.
The last air quality health advisory issued by CDPHE for the Durango area was issued April 22 and concerned blowing dust particles, he said.
“The kind of standard recommendation and the one I see on this particular advisory is that people with certain conditions – so people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children in the affected area – should reduce prolonged or heavy indoor and outdoor exertion,” he said.
Devine said the advice included in the advisory is good in general for cases of blowing dust, even if an official health advisory hasn’t been issued.