Burn ban extends to all campfires
Historically dry conditions have prompted federal agencies to impose campfire bans and other elevated fire restrictions on local Bureau of Land Management lands, Colorado National Monument and the White River National Forest.
“We’re seeing conditions at historic levels right now in the White River (forest) and the entire area,” forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told reporters Tuesday in announcing the new restrictions.
“... We’re seeing things that we haven’t seen in a long time, and (that are) even considerably worse in some areas than 2002,” he said.
That was the year Colorado was hit by numerous severe wildfires including the Coal Seam Fire, which destroyed dozens of homes and burned thousands of acres in the Glenwood Springs area.
What are called Stage 2 restrictions will be going into effect Friday. They apply to the Colorado National Monument; the Grand Junction, Colorado River Valley, White River, Kremmling and Little Snake field offices of the BLM; and the White River National Forest, which is highly popular with tourists and takes in much of Colorado’s west-central mountain region.
The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests are sticking with lower-level restrictions, at least for now.
The Stage 2 restrictions will prohibit fires even in fire pits or grates in developed campgrounds, where fires currently are allowed under Stage 1 restrictions. Use of pressurized, petroleum-fueled stoves still will be allowed.
Some of the other Stage 2 restrictions include limiting smoking to enclosed areas such as vehicles and trailers, and prohibiting welding except with permits.
“It’s not something that we take lightly but we have a set criteria that we follow,” BLM spokesman David Boyd said. “If we’re at that point it’s just really telling how severe the conditions are.”
Fitzwilliams said relative humidity has dropped to 3 or 4 percent, compared to an average of 20 to 25 percent this time of year. Soil moisture levels are at historic lows, at 5 to 10 percent above 8,000 feet in elevation compared to 50 to 60 percent on average.
Moisture levels for bigger fuel types are at 3.5 to 8.5 percent depending on elevation, compared to 12 percent for kiln-dried lumber. Even fuel moistures in the teens create concern about extreme fire behavior.
“If you think how fast a two-by-four can burn, we have fuel moistures that are lower than that,” Fitzwilliams said.
Boyd said this is the first time the Stage 2 restrictions have been implemented on local BLM lands and in the White River National Forest.
Also, for only the second time since they were first developed and issued in 2002, the BLM is issuing a separate fire order for oil and gas operations in the Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley field offices. The rules discourage the use of natural gas flaring and require providing advance notification to the BLM of flaring except when emergencies prevent it. Some of the other measures include having a pump, hose, nozzle and water supply at all work locations, and requiring field personnel to carry an adequate radio or cell phone and to each have a shovel and five gallons of water in vehicles.
Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana USA, said his company rarely flares anyway. He called the other restrictions “common-sense measures that we can and will comply with as our state faces the threat of wildfires.”
GMUG spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe said one reason her forest hasn’t gone to Stage 2 restrictions is that it has fewer beetle-killed trees than the White River. She said she thinks forest visitors generally are complying with the restrictions now in place there.
Fitzwilliams said the White River has had fairly good luck with compliance with the current restrictions, but some people don’t know they’re in effect, and forest employees also have responded to quite a few abandoned campfires.
He said the White River has taken the very rare step of requesting and obtaining “severity funding” from the Forest Service’s Region 2 office. Some $75,000 will be used to deploy signs, increase patrols, and even stage firefighting resources such as engines in locations where chances of a fire are higher in order to be able to respond faster.
The increased restrictions won’t mean an increase in potential fines, and Fitzwilliams added that the emphasis will be on education first and enforcement second.
If conditions worsen, the next potential step — an extraordinary one — would be Stage 3 restrictions under which the forest would be closed to the public except for certain permitted activities. Boyd said that’s never occurred on local BLM lands or in the White River National Forest.
Said Fitzwilliams, “We’re not there yet, for sure.”
But with the state’s most destructive blaze ever, the High Park Fire in Larimer County, still burning, Fitzwilliams said he thinks daily about the prospects for a big fire on his forest.
“Every day that it doesn’t rain we have been going through scenarios here about what would happen,” he said.
He noted that the forest has “a tremendous amount” of urban-wildland interface and has had few fires in the last decade, allowing fuels to build.
He encouraged residents to create defensible space around their homes and to develop evacuation plans.
As for his agency, “There’s a big difference between panic and preparation. We are erring on the side of preparation,” he said.
Fitzwilliams acknowledged the inconvenience of the increased fire restrictions, joking that his own son is “furious” about the campfire ban. But Boyd said that between the Larimer County fire and western Colorado’s fire history, which also includes the 1994 Storm King Fire that killed 14 firefighters near Glenwood Springs, he believes people realize the reasons behind the restrictions.
“I think people out here understand what a severe fire season can be like,” he said.