ASPEN - No wildfires were reported in the Roaring Fork Valley after a dry lightning storm rolled through Sunday afternoon, but Forest Service officials said Monday they would be surprised if extremely dry fuels aren't smoldering in the backcountry.
Aspen District Ranger Scott Snelson said he witnessed several large lightning bolts appear to strike the high country in the area of the Crown while sitting in the yard of his midvalley home Sunday afternoon. The storm front rushed past Basalt and rolled over Red Table Mountain, continuing to send jagged bolts to the ground. The storm produced lots of thunder and lightning but precious little rain. That rain that did fall was quickly absorbed.
Snelson said the lightning often ignites trees or other vegetation. Fires can smolder, often undetectable, and sometimes get stoked by winds. The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for the Aspen area Monday and Tuesday. Dry thunderstorms and gusty winds are possible.
The Forest Service banned all campfires everywhere in the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest surrounding Aspen and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley last week. The moisture content in the heavy fuels - big trees and logs - is lower than in kiln-dried lumber, the forest supervisor's office said when announcing the fire ban, which includes all fireworks and requires smokers to light up inside tents, structures or vehicles.
Snelson said the area will be fortunate if it emerges from this dry period without a fire.
"So, we're nervous," he said.
The Aspen Sopris Ranger District is taking precautions by sending out special fire-prevention teams. Three two-member teams each roamed campgrounds and popular backcountry camping areas last weekend, talking to campers and placing signs informing forest visitors about the ban. There will be one roving team on weekdays. In addition, a fire prevention team is checking popular destinations in wilderness for compliance.
Bill Kight, public information officer for the districts, said he was on patrol in the McClure Pass and Marble area. There are some out-of-state visitors who were unaware of the bans, he said. The teams are focusing on informing people over the next two weeks rather than citing them for violations, according to Kight. Most people he encountered were cooperative and understanding. A handful were not.
"The crazy thing is people were tearing down our signs," Kight said.
Forest visitors who ignore the bans do so at their fiscal peril. After two weeks, forest rangers will start writing tickets for violations. Kight said the potential fine is in the thousands of dollars if there is a conviction.
There are at least 10 wildfires burning in Colorado. Conditions are tinderbox dry throughout most of the state because of high temperatures and lack of moisture.