Garfield County sheriff invokes Stage 2 countywide fire ban | AspenTimes.com

Garfield County sheriff invokes Stage 2 countywide fire ban

Heather McGregor
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Sheriff Lou Vallario on Thursday declared that Stage 2 fire restrictions will now be applied on private and public land throughout Garfield County.

Stage 2 restrictions for public lands take effect Friday under an order issued by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday.

Vallario’s action means the ban on campfires, charcoal grill fires, outdoor smoking, explosives, fireworks and outdoor welding is effective everywhere in the county, including all private property.

“We know we are going to have fires this year. I’m not saying if, I’m saying when. We know we will have to deal with it. We just want to minimize the potential for human-caused fires,” Vallario said.

“Save your fireworks and enjoy them when conditions are safe to do so, maybe during a New Year’s Eve celebration. The consequences to you, the cost to our communities and the risk of lives is just too dangerous in these dry conditions,” Vallario said.

“We are getting a lot of calls from people asking about what they can do under the restrictions,” he added. “I just want to tell people, put the flames away.”

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If residents notice someone violating the fire ban, he advised calling the local fire department or the sheriff’s office right away to report the incident.

He said fire officials or deputies will respond and deal with situations on a case-by-case basis.

He noted that while violating fire restrictions carries a penalty of fines and possible jail time, the consequences of starting a wildfire are much more serious.

“If you go out and start a fire with a sparkler, you are going to be responsible for paying for putting the fire out, and you’ll be looking at arson charges,” he said.

“Oftentimes the most unintentional activities can start a fire, resulting in devastating consequences, even death. Here are some items that can and have ignited fires in dry conditions: welding equipment, chainsaws, lawn mowers, weed eaters or any small motors that can cause a spark or do not contain a spark arrestor, storage of chemicals outdoors, dirt bikes, and parking or operating vehicles or heavy equipment in tall grass or sagebrush,” Vallario said in a written statement.

While federal firefighting teams and community fire departments are trained and geared up for a big wildfire season, they are also counting on area residents to prepare in advance for the possibility of wildfire and evacuation.

“We want folks to understand that land management agencies are preparing now for a large-scale fire, and the public can help too by preparing for whatever might happen,” said Patrick Thrasher, spokesman for the White River National Forest.

If a wildfire ignites in the area, fire officials will likely order residents in the path of the fire to evacuate. That order may give people hours to pack and flee, or it may come with no more than a few moments to spare.

“With conditions this severe, and if we have multiple fires, the resources will be stretched,” said Bill Kight, public information officer for the White River National Forest. “You may need to be your own rescuer.”

“I am not one to panic, but conditions are such that preparedness is essential,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for the White River National Forest. “There’s a difference between panic and preparation. Let’s be prepared.”

Thrasher posed some questions for families to confer on as part of their wildfire preparation: What do you need to take with you in case of evacuation? Are there medications you will need? Valuable papers or heirlooms?

“People need to think about this now so when the order comes, you are ready,” he said. “Just as the federal agencies are preparing for wildfire, individuals who live close to the forest and open lands should prepare, too.”

He urged families to have a plan for how to communicate after an evacuation.

Fitzwilliams urged residents to take time to clear and, if necessary, to cut a defensible space around their home so that an oncoming wildfire will have less burnable fuel.

With the enactment of the Stage 2 fire restrictions on national forest and BLM lands throughout northwest Colorado, federal officials are stepping up weekend patrols and enforcement at campgrounds and other popular locations on public lands.

The White River National Forest has received $75,000 in extra federal funding to add temporary staff, post signs and stage firefighting resources over a two-week period. If the dry conditions persist, the agency will seek a renewal of the funding to handle the demands of a high-risk fire season, Fitzwilliams said.

Meanwhile, there are firefighting crews and engines at forest service offices in Dillon and Eagle, and larger crews, more engines and a helicopter at the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit staged at the Garfield Regional Airport in Rifle and at a similar fire base at Walker Field in Grand Junction.

“We are well set up. We feel comfortable about the resources we have,” said Fitzwilliams.

He noted that months ago, federal agencies developed cooperative agreements with community fire districts so there will be no jockeying over turf or responsibility when a wildfire erupts.

“The boundaries all go away with regard to our fire response,” said Thrasher. “The first available resource, the closest available resource will go in for the initial attack.”

“With the severity of these conditions, we need a very cooperative effort,” Fitzwilliams added.

The overall firefighting strategy is to attack wildfires and brush fires as soon as possible.

“We’ve seen fires taking off very fast this year, because it’s been so abnormally windy,” Fitzwilliams said. “We want to be successful at initial attack and keep these fires small.”

But he cautioned that decisions made by fire bosses about how to respond to a fire may not seem aggressive enough.

“I will not sacrifice a firefighter’s safety for a home or a ranch. There may be times when our response looks inadequate, and it’s because conditions warrant it,” he said.

hmcgregor@postindependent.com