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June 20, 2012
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Fire ban expands in national forest around Aspen

ASPEN - Drought, fire danger and the awful example elsewhere in Colorado of what can happen in the state's tinderbox-dry wild lands have prompted officials in the White River National Forest to expand a fire ban.

Starting Friday, no campfires will be allowed anywhere in the 2.3 million-acre forest, which stretches from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs and west of Rifle into Summit County. The ban also prohibits charcoal grills. Devices that use pressurized liquid or gas are exempt.

In the Aspen area, that means no campfires in Difficult, Weller, Lincoln Gulch, Lincoln Creek, Portal and Lost Man campgrounds along Highway 82 as well as those in Maroon Creek Valley. All campgrounds in the Fryingpan and Crystal valleys also will be affected.

The various factors "are pointing me to take all the precautions we can," said Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

The Bureau of Land Management's Northwest Colorado District and the National Park Service at Colorado National Monument outside Grand Junction adopted the same regulations.

The fire ban, technically called stage II restrictions, also prohibits anything that explodes. Chain saws can be operated only if they include factory-installed spark arresters and if operators carry a fire extinguisher and at least 5 gallons of water. People who have a permit to operate on forest lands cannot weld without a permit and the ability to meet several fire prevention and firefighting conditions. Smoking is allowed only inside vehicles, tents and buildings.

"These will stay in place until we get a change in the weather," Fitzwilliams said.

That appears unlikely anytime soon. The forecast is for hot and dry weather for at least the next two weeks. The moisture content for fuels and soils in the White River National Forest is already dreadfully dry - even though the official start to summer doesn't arrive until Thursday.

Fitzwilliams said experts on his staff have measured the moisture content in 1,000-hour fuels - basically, the big logs - at 3.5 to 8.5 percent. In comparison, kiln-dried lumber has a moisture content of about 12 percent. Soil moistures above 8,000 feet in elevation are between 5 and 10 percent. They should be 40 to 60 percent, Fitzwilliams said.

Meanwhile, the specter of the High Park Fire looms over all public lands managers in the state and rural fire departments. The fire west and northwest of Fort Collins has consumed more than 50,000 acres and destroyed 189 homes, making it the most destructive for property loss in the history of Colorado.

"I think about it every day," Fitzwilliams said of the High Park Fire.

Every day it doesn't rain, he said, he goes over different scenarios in his mind. The White River National Forest has many "urban-interface lands," defined as areas along the forest boundary where there is development. The forest also has a high level of fuels built up because of a lack of fires.

"Inevitably, we're going to have similar situations, hopefully not to this extent," Fitzwilliams said, referring again to the High Park Fire. "I have confidence in our fire crews, but there's only so much we can do."

Homeowners in the urban-interface areas need to prepare for the worst, he said. That includes creating defensible space around their homes and structures, having an escape plan and having the things important to them - like photographs - ready to move.

"It can happen here as easy as it can happen in the Front Range," Fitzwilliams said.

The Forest Service initially will focus on educating forest visitors about the ban on open burning. Signs will be posted, and an education effort will be undertaken.

"We've got people visiting from out of state that don't have a clue," forest spokesman Bill Kight said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jun 20, 2012 06:41AM Published Jun 20, 2012 12:38AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.