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Danger of wildfires increases in valley

Courtesy of the Basalt Fire DepartmentBasalt firefighters and property owners helped contain a fire Friday morning in a tool shed at 1801 Cedar Drive. Firefighters initially were concerned about the flames spreading to the surrounding wildlands because conditions are so dry.
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Unusually dry conditions in the Roaring Fork Valley have spurred fire officials to take action to try to avoid wildland fires.

Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy restricted open burning Friday. That prohibits the traditional springtime activity of burning dried grass along fence lines and ditches, and torching brush piles.

The Aspen Fire Protection District also decided Friday morning it needed to take action.

“I have stopped all open burning for the weekend, at least,” said Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven.

There were up to five permits issued for burns this weekend, but Van Walraven contacted the parties and asked them not to burn until further notice. Landowners who want to burn must get a permit, which is free and available online. It lets the office track burns and provides authorities with a contact person in case of problems.

Van Walraven said high winds and low humidity have sucked the moisture out of the soil and some vegetation, boosting the fire risk. High winds are expected in the central mountains of Colorado Saturday as a storm system moves in. The National Weather Service has issued a “fire weather watch” for western Colorado below snow line because of the high winds, low humidity and dry fuels.

Van Walraven said the open-burn ban in the Aspen fire district will be reassessed if the forecasted rain and snow materializes.

Three “close calls” with wildfires this week have Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach urging landowners in his district who want to burn brush or dried grasses to call his office first for a discussion about conditions.

Leach said fires started by humans triggered small brush fires Monday when strong winds blew through the valley. Conditions are already tinderbox-dry in his district, which includes parts of Pitkin and Garfield counties. With warm and dry weather forecast into April, Leach said he expects fire danger to increase.

“It’s awfully early in the year for us to see wildfire starts like this,” Leach said. “We are concerned about it.”

If asked by the sheriffs of the counties, Leach said he would recommend a ban on open fires. Eagle County’s restrictions on open burning mean that landowners who want to burn ditches, slash piles or dried out grasslands cannot do so in the sliver of Eagle County in the Basalt and El Jebel areas.

For now, burning is still allowed in Garfield and Pitkin counties. Leach said his staff wants to know landowners’ plans so they can discuss what the forecast looks like during intended burns. Leach is particularly concerned about alerting burners when high winds are expected.

Winds gusted above 40 mph Monday and scattered embers that started three brush fires in the Carbondale fire district. The source of one blaze was an apparent campfire in the pinon trees on a hillside overlooking River Valley Ranch. The fire wasn’t properly extinguished and the blowing embers caught three trees on fire. They were quickly doused by the fire department. The campers who had the fire were “totally reckless and irresponsible,” Leach said.

A second fire occurred in the Crystal River Valley when a landowner didn’t properly supervise the burning of a pile of cottonwood limbs and branches. Sparks blew across Highway 133 and ignited vegetation on wildlands, Leach said.

A third fire occurred that day when a “controlled burn” got out of control, Leach said.

In each case, Carbondale firefighters extinguished the fires before they spread far. Leach said each situation could have gotten out of control, so he’s concerned about open burning.

Basalt firefighters contended with their own close call Friday. A fire broke out in a tool shed at 1801 Cedar Drive and threatened to spread into the surrounding wildlands along a twisty, gravel mountain road. A patch of dry grass about 15 by 50 feet burned, but the landowners used garden hoses to contain the fire until Basalt firefighters arrived, said Basalt Deputy Fire Chief Brian Benton. It also was fortunate that winds were light at the time and that aspen trees were in the area.

“Aspen trees are like sponges. They just absorb” the flames without exploding, he said.

The fire was reported shortly before noon. Basalt initially requested mutual aid from the Aspen and Carbondale fire departments because of the risk of the fire spreading to wildlands. The mutual aid was canceled. Basalt Fire Department responded with 12 firefighters, three engines and one brush truck.

The cause of the fire was under investigation by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. The tool shed, estimated at 12-by-20 feet, was a loss.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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