Drought forces variety of fire restrictions to be put in place

Grand Junction Fire crews work to contain a brush fire on the westbound shoulder of interstate I-70 before the 24 1\2 overpass. One westbound lane was closed between Horizon drive and 24 road. Monday June 11th 2018.

Cancellations of fireworks shows, bans on fireworks use and sales, increased fire restrictions and even an outright closure of a national forest are reflecting ever-growing concern about tinderbox conditions in western Colorado.

Garfield County commissioners on Monday approved an immediate ban on use of fireworks in the unincorporated part of the county, and Garfield sheriff emergency manager Chris Bornholdt told commissioners the Sheriff's Office is thinking about imposing Stage 2 fire restrictions as well, which prohibits fireworks, campfires or any open burning of any kind. Smoking outdoors is also outlawed unless it's in an enclosed vehicle or building.

Ouray County on Monday imposed Stage 2 restrictions, and the Bureau of Land Management likewise has done so for the San Juan County portion of the Gunnison Field Office. Lesser Stage 1 restrictions already in place across much of the region allow fires in designated fire grates in developed campgrounds.

"It is really, really dangerous out there right now," Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said as the commissioners prepared to approve the fireworks use ban.

He cited "beyond exceptional" drought conditions in the region, while Bornholdt pointed to four major fires currently burning in the state, including ones in Eagle County and the Durango area.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service said it would bar most entry to the 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest starting today in an effort to keep fires from being ignited due to campfires or other causes there. The forest stretches across southwestern Colorado from just north of Durango to Ouray, and includes the area of the 416 and Burro wildfires that have burned more than 22,000 acres since June 1. The ban doesn't impact U.S. highways or state or county roads that cross the forest.

While it's more common for national forests in Arizona and New Mexico to close for fire danger, it's unusual for this to happen in Colorado, according to Cam Hooley, acting public affairs officer for the San Juan National Forest.

"It's the first time for this forest," Hooley said. "Having never done it before, we're learning as we go, too."

Though the order to implement the restriction was expected to go into effect at midnight and the closure goes into effect at 7 a.m. today, Hooley described the process as gradual, because the Forest Service knows there may be people recreating in the backcountry who are unaware of the restrictions.

"It will be a gradual process because we can't go everywhere in one day," she said.

The plan is to place signs up on trail heads and campgrounds, notifying anyone Forest Service staff encounters that it's time to leave the forest.

Hooley asked the public to be patient, as the closures will likely be in place until conditions improve. Officials are hoping monsoonal rains will arrive and help firefighters contain the blazes. She said fire managers are continually monitoring weather forecasts, fuel conditions, the number of human-caused fires in an area as well as available resources to make decisions about restrictions, which they know have an effect on the neighboring communities.

"It's not just willy-nilly, we feel like we ought to," she said. "We know this has a huge economic impact to the community."

The stage 3 restrictions in the San Juan National Forest carry a hefty fine for those who don't heed the order to stay out. The penalty is up to $5,000 fine, six months in prison, or both, Hooley said. Anyone proven to start a wildfire on public lands can also be held responsible for the costs of fighting the blaze.

A brush fire near Rulison briefly closed the westbound lanes of Interstate 70 Sunday afternoon, and Martin said he counted six fires between De Beque Canyon and Parachute. Garfield Commissioner Tom Jankovsky called the fireworks ban "very prudent," saying he's never seen so many fires off the highways "that are literally started by sparks."

The county's fireworks ban does not include a ban on sales, whereas such bans have been enacted by Mesa County at the county level and by municipalities. The city of Rifle's municipal code has a standing open-burn ban from Memorial Day to Labor Day that includes a ban on fireworks sales, possession or use.

Garfield commissioners had imposed a temporary ban on fireworks sales and use in 2013 before agreeing to provide a one-week exemption to the sales portion of the ban around July 4 of that year after a plea from a longtime seasonal fireworks vendor.

Meanwhile, July 4 fireworks shows in Ouray, Glenwood Springs and the New Castle area have been canceled due to the fire danger. Glenwood Springs is planning a laser show instead after the city's fire chief, Gary Tillotson, urged cancellation of the fireworks show there due to the danger it posed.

Rochelle Firth, office manager for Apple Tree Mobile Home Park, which puts on the annual fireworks show near New Castle, said this year's show could end up proceeding if drenching rains come before July 4, but she added, "I don't see that happening."

The park still will hold its Freedom Festival, including a concert, on the holiday.

The town of Parachute hasn't done a fireworks show in the summer for years because of the fire danger, said Town Manager Stuart McArthur. Instead, it puts on a show in the last week in September.

"We are still planning that now," he said.

He said the town's code also prohibits personal fireworks use.

Several western Colorado municipalities and fire districts are still weighing whether to put on fireworks displays on or around Independence Day, including Rifle, Fruita, De Beque and Meeker.

"Obviously it's probably not looking good, but there's nothing finalized just yet," Rifle spokeswoman Kathy Pototsky said.

Based on recommendations from the BLM and the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, Lower Valley Fire Chief Frank Cavaliere said he has recommended to the city of Fruita that it call off its annual July 3 show at Snooks Bottom Open Space.

"Even if it rains for a long time, it's not going to add to the moisture contents of the soil," Cavaliere said.

The decision rests with the Fruita Parks and Recreation Department. Director Ture Nycum said Monday he expects an announcement by the end of the week. Should city officials cancel the show, they'll announce an alternative celebration, he said. In the past, they've sponsored a community barbecue or hosted events downtown.

"We're trying to balance the concerns of the fire department with financial concerns and seeing if we can store the fireworks until next year," Nycum said.

De Beque Town Manager Lance Stewart said the town won't make a decision until a day or two before the holiday.

"If we don't get substantial rainfall in the next few weeks, I will personally recommend to the board that we wait until a more appropriate time," he said.

The town has already purchased the fireworks, which puts them in a difficult spot. In the past, when they've had to cancel, they've done a New Years' Eve show instead with the fireworks.

Officials with the cities of Grand Junction, Montrose and Delta and the town of Collbran say they plan to light up the July 4 night sky with professional displays, barring drastic changes.

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