Eric Lutzens  /  The Denver Post
Heavy rain flooded areas like this Littleton, Colo., neighborhood earlier this week. But the rain didn't ease fears of a dangerous drought and fire season.
updated 7/1/2004 1:51:18 PM ET 2004-07-01T17:51:18

Rain and thunderstorms have been a welcome sight in the West, especially Colorado, where restrictions on water use and campfires have been eased.

But the wet weather isn’t enough to drown out the threat of a damaging drought.

Lessening limits in Colorado comes amid warnings across the West that the return of hot, dry weather could drop reservoir levels even further and quickly turn green, lush grasses into fuel for wildfires. The region has been stuck in a crippling drought for years.

Nancy Lull, spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said a series of thunderstorms that began hitting the state last week have helped reduce the threat of wildfires.

July Fourth fire fears
“That’s going to keep things cooler and wetter,” Lull said. “But we’re still dry. We’re in the fifth year of a drought, and there’s always a risk when we have a lot of people out celebrating the Fourth of July weekend.”

Rain has delayed wheat harvests from southern Colorado to eastern Wyoming and flooded highways and basements along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. But it has been welcome virtually everywhere else.

The Denver Water Board, which is Colorado’s largest water utility with 1.2 million customers, added a third day of lawn watering after downpours over its mountain reservoirs this week. Surcharges remain in place for high water use.

The Denver area received an average of 2.6 inches of rain in June, an inch more than typical. The water board also extended an exemption that allows daily watering of new sod for 21 days.

The utility’s decision upset Denise Maes, the water board president who noted Colorado reservoir levels are only 84 percent of average.

“We’re looking at two or three weeks of unprecedented rain and acting solely on the basis of that,” Maes said.

Arizona 'critical'
Officials in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Utah said rain has helped in the past few weeks. But other states have seen little change.

“To put it bluntly, the fire danger (in Arizona) hasn’t changed at all in eight weeks: It’s critical, it’s bad,” said Chuck Maxwell, fire meteorologist for the Southwest Coordination Center that serves Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.

The only way to begin climbing out of a drought is a winter packed with heavy snow followed by a cool, wet spring, experts said.

“We get relief from drought but it re-emerges — at no point do we feel comfortable that it’s over. It’s not,” said Nolan Doesken, Colorado’s assistant climatologist.

Still, public land managers are repealing or holding off on fire restrictions and bans in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The fire danger dropped from high to moderate across much of Colorado after the storms, said Larry Helmerick of the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center, an interagency fire center.

“With the past thunderstorms we’ve been getting, we’ve been getting a lot of lightning, but we’ve also been getting a lot of precipitation with that,” said Colleen Finneman, spokeswoman for the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula, Mont.

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