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Wildfire briefing: Cortez area faces fire watches this week

The Calf Fire burns near Penasco Blanco, New Mexico, on Friday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Air quality could decline; parts of Four Corners face ‘extreme drought’

Dry, warm and windy weather is expected to persist in the Four Corners this week, increasing the threat of wildfires across the Southwest.

The National Weather Service on Monday announced a fire weather watch for Tuesday afternoon across much of Southwest Colorado, including Cortez and an area south of Durango. Later Monday, it added fire watches for Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

The Four Corners also faces a possible decline in air quality as smoke from wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico drifts into the area. The air quality Monday in Cortez and Durango was rated “good” as wind speed remained low.

The fire watch, triggered when humidity levels drop below critical thresholds, applies to areas below 7,000 feet in elevation, the weather service office in Grand Junction said.

The watch is in effect Tuesday afternoon and evening. The humidity level Monday was expected to range from 10% to 15% and to decline Tuesday to 8% to 13%.

Winds are expected to pick up Tuesday, averaging 15 mph to 20 mph with gusts reaching 30 mph. Mostly sunny skies are expected to continue through Friday, with high temperatures in the mid-70s.

There is a slight chance of rain showers Wednesday at lower elevations, with snowfall in the San Juan Mountains. The chance of precipitation will increase later this week ahead of an approaching cold front, the weather service said.

The San Juan National Forest’s Dolores Ranger District also announced it planned to begin several prescribed burns later this month in Boggy Draw, 10 miles northeast of Dolores and Haycamp Mesa, 10 miles east of Dolores.

Burning operations will take place over multiple days when weather and fuel conditions are favorable and may continue throughout the summer and fall.

The U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday placed the immediate area of the Four Corners, including the far southwestern corner of Colorado, in the category of “extreme drought,” or Level D3 of four levels ranging in ascending risk to “exceptional drought,” or Level D4.

Portions of southeastern Utah, northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona also face extreme drought.

Several fires in the U.S. Southwest could send smoke into the Four Corners. They are:

  • The Tunnel Fire in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, which reached 21,164 acres and 15% containment by Monday morning. The fire was burning Monday in dry grass, brush and scattered ponderosa pine and was expected to spread to the northeast.
  • The Crooks Fire in the Prescott National Forest, which reached 3,914 acres and 22% containment by Monday morning. It was burning in thick, dry and down fuels in rugged terrain, with erratic winds.
  • The Cerro Pelado Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, which reached 4,688 acres and less than 1% containment by Monday morning. It was burning in timber and brush amid gusting winds.
  • The Calf Canyon Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, which reached 56,478 acres and 12% containment by Monday morning. It was burning in pine and brush amid gusting winds.