Why wildfire season reminds one USFS fire captain of ski season 

What do fire season and ski season have in common? 

You never know what you’re going to get. 

“I tell people, you never know until it’s done,” says Dusty Calfee, a U.S. Forest Service engine captain on the White River National Forest. “You can have some of your biggest ski days late in the spring, and with fire season, it can be the same way. They can drag on without a lot of fire activity and then, all of a sudden, late in the season, you can get a bunch of new starts or some larger fires.” 

Calfee has been fighting fires on the White River National Forest for 12 years. He tells Krystal 93 that fire season comes in three waves.  

We’re at the tail end of the first wave now: snowmelt to green-up. 

“We were able to bridge that gap between the snowpack receding and the start of green-ups, and now we’re into the start of green-up,” he says of this year’s cool and moist mud season, late April into June. “We’ve leapt over that first wave of the season without a lot of fire activity.” 

The second wave is monsoon season, starting in mid to late July. 

“El Nino has ended and we’re waiting to transition into a likely La Nina,” he says, “and so the strength of the monsoon is a little hard to predict.” 

People also make the monsoon wave unpredictable. 

“If the monsoon isn’t showing up, and it’s hot and it’s dry and windy, and we don’t get a lot of dry lightning, and the public is nervous and we go into fire restrictions, that combination of things?” Calfee says. “We don’t get a lot of fires.” 

The third wave is post-growing season, when lush, green vegetation from the monsoon dries up. Sometimes, a rainy monsoon leads to more fire danger in the third wave, when dry fall days linger before the first big snowstorms. 

“The seasonal outlook for the Rocky Mountain area in general is for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation,” Calfee says. “Obviously that combination is the recipe for fire start.” 

But these waves are guidelines. There is only one constant in a High Country summer: 

“Fire season is all summer long,” Calfee says. “It comes in different intensities, but it’s really on us to manage our heat sources and be responsible when we know we’re adding a bit of risk.”