Campers urged to be wildfire-aware as summer season begins this weekend
No fire restrictions around Aspen area for Memorial Day holiday, but outlook is dry for this summer with wildfire threat expected to rise
As the summer camping season begins in earnest this Memorial Day Weekend, officials are urging people to be careful with fire and respectful of the backcountry.
“Here we go,” Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said Thursday. “The number one thing people need to know is what the rules are when it comes to fire restrictions.”
With recent rains and snowmelt run-off, no fire restrictions are in place, though area fire officials are bracing for another hot and dry summer that may or may not produce the monsoon weather cycle so important to preventing wildfires.
Dan Cuevas, a technician with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the forecast so far for June, July and August is for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation.
“It doesn’t bode well for the fire danger outlook,” Cuevas said.
This weekend’s forecast calls for highs in the low 70s on Friday and Saturday with clouds and rainshowers and thunderstorms expected Sunday and Monday, Cuevas said. Winds are not expected to be particularly strong, he said.
Colorado was wracked with numerous large wildfires last summer, including the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon that began in early August and forced the closure of Interstate 70 for nearly two weeks. A larger than normal snowpack last year made no difference in tempering the fire season as higher than average temperatures coupled with a lack of monsoon storms led to about 2,300 wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region and more than 1 million acres burned, Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction said in April.
In fact, Pitkin County was the only county in the northwest region of Colorado not to experience a significant wildfire last summer, said Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager.
“But there’s no reason to think our luck will hold,” MacDonald said Thursday. “Everyone needs to be prepared for wildfires.”
This year’s snowpack was between 70% and 80% of the normal average, and though the spring has been fairly wet and cool, the forecast this summer is similar to last summer, she said. In addition, drought conditions persist in Pitkin County and throughout the Western Slope, which means the stage is set for another nasty fire season.
“Do not let the recent rains lull you into a false sense of security around the fire forecast this summer,” MacDonald said. “Wildfire season is fast-approaching, and we need everyone to do their part to not start a fire.”
She warned that 80% of wildfires are caused by humans.
Campers who choose to have a campfire must abide by a few simple rules, Balentine said. First, make sure to have plenty of water on hand, start fires with natural materials and not gas or other flammable materials, don’t build fires under overhanging branches, make sure the area around the fire is free of flammable debris and never leave a fire unattended, he said.
Most important is to put the fire out completely. Douse the campfire with water, stir it around, douse it again and repeat until it is cold to the touch, Balentine said. Winds can easily pick up still-smoldering ashes and start a wildfire, he said.
Matt Henry, acting recreation program lead for the U.S. Forest Service, also urged campers to extinguish campfires completely.
“Last year, we consistently encountered abandoned campfires and large amounts of trash left behind from dispersed campers,” he said in a news release earlier this week.
Developed campgrounds usually have metal fire pits, but dispersed sites outside campgrounds do not. The use of dispersed campsites requires knowledge of basic rules and practices to ensure the backcountry is not abused, according to the release.
First, camping is not allowed within 100 feet of lakes, streams and forest system trails, while campers should use existing campsites and not create new sites.
“Remember that the best campsites are found, not created,” Henry said.
Campers can remain at a dispersed site for no more than 14 days in a 30-day period. Also, black bears are present throughout the forests and food and coolers should not be left unattended and campsites should be kept as clean as possible. Finally, the Forest Service recommends the use of self-contained waste disposal systems when possible or burying waste at least six inches deep and pet waste should be cleaned up.
“With so many people camping in the forest, we really want people to keep their camping footprint small,” Henry said.
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Former Aspen Skiing Co. executive and Aspen city councilman Derek Johnson has been released from state prison and is currently residing at a halfway house.