Time to get outdoors before the skies fill with wildfire smoke

Most recent years have had a big downside in July and August, so plan-

I spent yesterday in the mountains of Eastern Idaho. I didn’t go to the highest mountains where there is still snow and green-up is just beginning.

The eastern Idaho valleys and lower mountains are filled with green grass, fresh foilage, wildflowers, and river waters that are now losing their snowmelt turbidity.  Some places in Idaho, Wyoming and northern Utah are now well past their peak of Springtime beauty and wildlife.

Early June in the Soda Springs (ID) Hills
Early June in the Soda Springs (ID) Hills. Copyright Ralph Maughan, June 4, 2013

The Northern Rockies had a cold spring which partially offset the winter snowfall, which was generally below normal (assuming that drought is not the new normal).  Montana just got a big splash of cold rain, especially east of the Continental Divide. Northern Idaho is not in drought. Southern Idaho, which is droughty, didn’t see tall growth of grass due to the low precipitation and the slower growth of a cold spring, though range fires will likely soon begin to break out, beginning in the lower, hotter area of SW Idaho.

May and June are usually the peak wildlfire season in Arizona and New Mexico. Wildfire danger there is already high to extreme. The last couple years have seen very large wildfires and conditions are again favorable to this.

Last summer the skies of Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana were filled with smoke from mid June to early October. Wildfire seasons in the forests have been ending in October in recent years. It used to be September.

This year, so far, the skies of these states are nearly smoke free except from the Powerhouse fire burning north of L.A.  You cannot expect this to last and people need to start thinking of June as the prime outdoor recreation month in the inland Northwest, plus Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

A million acres of central Idaho burned last summer and early autumn.  I plan to see the beginning of the recovery before it is (likely) on fire again.

Advances in satellite technology applied to the web now provide us with very interesting and useful maps of pollution and smoke. In particular see, U.S. Air Quality 





  1. Larry Avatar

    Thanks Ralph for the air quality website note. It is new to me and while it is full of “stuff” I don’t understand it will be a new learning challenge I welcome. It is now pinned.

  2. Larry Avatar

    As I grew up in southern Idaho spring was always my favorite season and as soon as I could get my license (14)and buy a car (1948 Chev) I spent most afternoons after school in the desert. Longer excursions were Owyhee County. Usually alone using my camera, later starting my botany collection which I still have. The cold desert ecosystem is an often overlooked museum.

  3. Larry Avatar

    Just read a news article reporting that Sec Jewell is laying out a more healthy menu at the NP eat places. That’s really important, hope she can find time to roll out a menu of more healthy BLM lands with a few less deepening slow elk trails.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I never thought that was one of the top priorities of the Interior Dept. 🙁

  4. ZeeWolf Avatar

    Thank you, Ralph, for the thoughts.

    One of the “newer” problems we have here in western Colorado, aka the Western Slope, occurs around this time of year (spring). The problem is so-called “dust-on-snow events”. As I understand it, it is partly caused by overgrazing in Utah and other southwestern desert locations. The spring wind storms kick up dust particulates and blow them onto the high peaks. This in turn causes the snow packs to darken and melt just that much faster, as if the global warming induced climate change isn’t doing enough on its own.


    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Thanks ZeeWolf,

      I didn’t know about this.

      Significantly, the same thing happened this winter in SW Idaho. Dust from the big range fires in Nevada and Oregon last summer blew over to Idaho and covered the Owyhee Mountains and plateau, which collect important snow, but are not all that high.

      The dust caused a February meltoff. The Western Watersheds Project wanted reductions in grazing based on the dramatic impact on anticipated runoff and soil moisture.

      Of course, the BLM did nothing though they were created to take action when a sudden natural impact like this affected resource users.

      1. WM Avatar


        I think, in fact, we have discussed this phenomenon here in the past(dust blowing on to snow and increasing heat absorption, thereby increasing runoff). An acquantance of mine from years ago has been studying this issue for something like 15 years. Here is a link to the NASA website and some of his published research on the issue (including a couple with co-author Chris Landry quoted in the Summit County article). He has also done a couple NPR interviews on the topic, one involving UT dust from disturbed desert ecosystems blows onto CO high country snow pack, hastening runoff.

        Incidentally, Arapaho Basin Ski Area is one of the latest in Colorado to stay open (aspect and elevation help preserve the snowpack). If their season is being impacted its definitely affecting the whole ski industry where this problem may be increasing. The triggering of avalanches seems a new twist, however.

        1. SAP Avatar

          Albedo — or the ability of a particular surface to either reflect or absorb solar raidation — is a huge factor in climate change.

          New snow (as the table in link below states) reflects almost 90 percent of solar radiation back into the upper atmosphere. Lots of nice, angular little crystals in new snow. Older snow that’s packed down or melted or worn away from the wind isn’t quite as reflective. A layer of dust on snowpack is going to negate a lot of that albedo, keeping the heat right here in the troposphere to make the planet warmer.

          The amplified feedback effect is probably a major factor in what seems to be a pronounced shift to a warmer climate. A warmer troposphere leads to less snowfall, leads to less snowpack and more absorbed (then slowly released into troposphere) solar heat, leads to an even warmer planet with less snowfall. Ad infinitum.


    1. Nancy Avatar

      Thanks ramses09 – Indeed, a good read.

      But it would appear some, obviously have problems with the read (judging from his/her previous posts – click on the icon next to the name Idaho_roper) and you get the idea 🙂 in spades.. that some are more than willing and anxious to “kick up dirt” over pretty much nothing, when it comes to predators.

      “So, to the federal authoritarians such as Bruskotter, Enzler and the rest, I say no thanks. Lets amend the EAJA and the ESA to solve some of the issues they have created instead of creating more”

  5. cobackcountry Avatar

    We had a fire near Evergreen, CO (Ironically named) yesterday.

    There is a small bright side, we have had more precipitation here than we have had in comparison to the last few years. Fort Collins got 200 percent of average snow in May.

    But, we continue to have drought conditions. To complicate the dust on snow, we also have fewer trees or cover to slow run offs. I expect a lot of blackened floods through burn areas.

    Lucky for me, I have a son who is a Wildland Fire Fighter. So I can worry about that to. Joy.

  6. cobackcountry Avatar

    I hope you hiked last weekend. Colorado is burning- again. Three fires are burning. We set traps all over, and now have to check them in the smoke 🙁 Darn it. Like the 95 degree heat wasn’t bad enough, now we get to hack up lungs in the name of science.

  7. ZeeWolf Avatar

    My feelings and prayers go out to the people negatively impacted by the large wildfires on the Front Range.

    Some years ago there was a video of a large ship speeding towards a dock. By “speeding” I mean about 12-15 miles per hour. Nonetheless, large ships can not turn quickly nor brake easily. The ship ended up plowing into the dock causing mayhem and destruction. It was slow and somewhat surreal, watching this ship approach the dock, seemingly benign, and then crush all in its path. An unstoppable disaster in slow motion; nothing could be done beyond getting people out of the way.

    The above story is similar to the current state of forestry in the western United States, well, at least in Colorado. We see it coming, drought and heat and beetle infestations killing so many conifers. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done except move people out of harm’s way once a fire ignites. All we can do for the most part is stand back and watch the catastrophe unfold right before our eyes, in slow motion.

    Last year, I hiked in the Mineral Creek drainage (in the La Garita Mountains) and found the vast majority of subalpine conifers to be dying or dead. This at an elevation of 11,000 to 12,000 feet. Oddly enough, the bristlcone pines at 10,000 feet were doing well enough. We here in the upper Gunnison River basin seem to have been spared most of the beetle epedemic and die-off but I wonder how long that will last. The Mineral Creek die-off may be the first wave of a large conifer megadeath that will eventually affect the remainder of the basin.

    Yesterday, I hiked up to Lamphier Lake within the Fossil Ridge wilderness area. The lake sits at about 11,700 feet. I am happy to report that it was still mostly frozen, indicating relatively cool temperatures this spring. There was also a large amount of snow atop the peaks above treeline, as well as significant snowpack wihtin the subalpine zone from about 10,800 to 12,000 feet. For us on the Western Slope that is good news. I feel lucky to live where I do as we haven’t had any significant fires in the last decade, but I wonder how long that will last. Gazing at the spruce and firs surrounding the lake, I had a difficult time imagining what it would look like all burnt up.

    I can only hope that the summer monsoons start up sooner than later. Last year was a much warmer and drier spring, with minimal snowpack. The only thing that saved the forests last year was the timely arrival of the summer rains.

    1. WM Avatar


      Did you make it to the upper lake?

      About 35 years ago, was the first wave of in-migration of Californians and East Coast types to CO, especially to the Front Range and the mountain valleys surrounding the growing ski complexes, where condos were going up by the dozens and high end homes built in the timber or on side-hill vistas.

      The CSU School of Natural Resources and the CO State Forest Service developed high fire risk mapping program (early days of computers) to assist in local and state land use decisions.

      Experimental at first, some of the rapid development areas were identified and a rigorous effort using topographic maps, and aerial photography to identify high fire risk locations was undertaken. The topo maps were examined for slope steepness, aspect and length of run, and elevation. The stereo aerial photos were consulted for vegetation type. All of these represent fire risk components. Ground surveys were also conducted to verify accuracy of what was found on the maps and photos. This information was synthesized and using a decision template HIGH, MEDIUM and LOW fire risk areas were identified, and reduced to maps with Red/Orange/Yellow areas of risk The information was provided to County Planning Departments with the hope that, combined with other natural resource information, they would incorporate this tool into their decision-making processes. The idea was that housing developement would be mitigated, discouraged or completely prohibited in these HIGH risk areas, ultimately reducing risk of loss of man made structures that some thought should be built on often steep slopes, with east or south facing aspects and lots of fine fuels in certain years. Water in these areas is typically only available by individual well, or special water district systems, by the way, and many were not high yield producers like when fighting fire. Surface water usually not available.

      Preserving wildlife habitat would be a side-benefit of such planning. Well, some thirty plus years later, with much of that advice being ignored, we have the weather conditions, fine fuel build-up and those nice wood structures that are going up in smoke by the hundreds. Incidentally, two of the areas where such specific work was done initially included Colorado Springs/Teller and El Paso County and its Black Forest, and the area west of Fort Collins in Larimer County and adjacent Boulder County. Guess who had the big fires last year? The cause of the fires is irrelevant – whether lightening or somebody’s cigarette; a fire is a fire.

      This ship, to which you metaphorically refer, was set on its destruction course those thirty to forty years ago, and many ships are following in its wake.

      1. WM Avatar

        And giving credit where credit is due, wildfire research scientist Jack Barrows was the architect of this fire risk planning model, with the innovative development inputs from one of his engineering trained employees Richard Rothermel). This report is a good read on the history of the combustion model which serves as the basis for the later developed planning tools:


      2. ZeeWolf Avatar


        I dug the summary of fire risk management. My balky and mostly useless computer won’t download the pdf for some reason (some kind of network error, I’ll have to look into it later) but I plan on reading when I can.

        How come I’m not surprised that for the most part information like this has been ignored? I would guess it has somehting to do with the almighty dollar. People on this site like to complain about the ranchers, but from what I have seen the real estate developers are the most wicked of the lot. They should be held accountable for thier subdivisions, but that won’t happen. Although I live now on the Western Slope I lived in Golden for five years while attending CSM. Some of the land use decisions I saw implemented left me shaking my head and I am not surprised that we are in the current situation. I did then and still do now love the front range mountains. The foothills and plains interface never ceases to amaze and thrill me in some way. What a waste.

        Oh, yes, I did make it to the upper lake. My topo leaves out the modifier and calls it simply “Lamphier Lake”. There is a Lower Lamphier Lake, that is technically in a different drainage; meaning that the upper and lower lakes aren’t a chain. What I didn’t do was go up to Gunsight Pass nor any of the easily accessable peaks in the surrounding area. I was stricken by tendonitous (sp?) this winter and am taking it easy and didn’t really feel up to busting through more drifts. Maybe later in the year, I don’t think the snow will last more than another couple of weeks.

        Yup, that ship set sail a long, long time ago. And yeah, there are more of them, a regular fricking Spanish armada. Speaking of 35-40 years ago, what we need now is another Gov. Lamm. I thnink that fellow was a Bad-Ass turning down the winter olympics because it would cause too much development.

      3. Nancy Avatar

        A good read – The Big Burn/Timothy Egan. 2009

  8. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    I have always remembered this skit.
    As humans , it seems that we never are able to comprehend the total time line of earth ecology, geology, (and no I claim no special knowledge), but we always refer to (how it used to be) in our childhood, parents time, grandparents, or what we have read of history.
    The simple fact is as Carlin says, the earth may shake us off like a bad case of fleas.



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Ralph Maughan