Feeling the heat as fire risk climbs; restrictions set to tighten in national forests around Aspen, Valley area | AspenTimes.com

Feeling the heat as fire risk climbs; restrictions set to tighten in national forests around Aspen, Valley area

Scott Thompson is known for being a straight shooter and avoiding hype, so when the Basalt and Snowmass Village fire chief says the fire risk in the Roaring Fork Valley has him on edge, it's wise to take note.

Fuel moisture levels are flirting with record lows, dry and windy conditions are a daily occurrence and the latest weather models for the central mountains say the summer monsoon probably won't hit until late July.

"I'm concerned," Thompson said Thursday. "I'm scared that a small fire is going to become a mega-fire."

U.S. Forest Service officials also are concerned. They will consider ramping up the level of fire restrictions today in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. They intend to adopt the stricter restrictions for the busy weekend heading into the July 4 holiday week, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer. Under Stage II restrictions, campfires of all types are restricted, even those in established campgrounds with fire grates. Charcoal fires also are banned.

Schroyer said the concessionaire operating the campgrounds will cover the fire grates and enforce the prohibition if the stricter rules are adopted. The Forest Service staff will mount a major education effort.

Garfield County implemented Stage II fire restrictions Thursday. Glenwood Springs had previously implemented Stage II restrictions.

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Pitkin County and Eagle County intend to ramp up from Stage I to Stage II fire restrictions today, officials said Thursday night.

Thompson said stricter regulations are warranted because of the low fuel-moisture levels and dry weather forecast. Several wildland fires started in Colorado on Thursday, providing additional fuel for further restrictions.

The National Weather Service has forecast a chance for precipitation July 4 and 5, but that is not part of the normal monsoonal flow, Thompson said, so long-term conditions could be drier.

The moisture level in the 1,000-hour fuels, meaning the largest trees, is at about 8 percent, which is essentially tinder dry, he said. Dead grass is everywhere, so winds would likely whip any flame into a fast-moving fire immediately. The fire departments in Basalt and Snowmass Village are treating any report of a possible wildland fire as a bona fide incident, so they scramble to get resources to the site as quickly as possible. Thompson said no firefighters or equipment have been loaned out recently to fight fires elsewhere in the state or West. All resources are needed in the district, he said.

There was a report Wednesday that a tree fell into a power line in the Upper Fryingpan Valley. Basalt Fire Department responded with three brush trucks and called in federal resources, including a helicopter. Fortunately, it was a live aspen tree that fell into the line. Aspens tend to hold moisture better and aren't as susceptible to fire. A Holy Cross Energy crew was in the Fryingpan Valley, so it cut power to the line and used chainsaws to fell it before firefighters arrived, Thompson said.

Disaster was averted up the Fryingpan but now comes the Fourth of July and the possibility of illegal use of fireworks.

"We're about to get this huge influx of people," said Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County emergency manager. "The population of Pitkin County is about to double."

She is concerned visitors won't be aware of the fire risk and restrictions, and that residents aren't prepared to evacuate in case of a wildland fire.

To inform visitors, she's running advertisements, using social media, using highway signs to publicize restrictions and drawing on help from organizations like the chambers of commerce in Aspen and Snowmass Village.

Towns throughout the Roaring Fork Valley have canceled their professional fireworks shows because of dry conditions.

Garfield County has a confusing policy on legal fireworks. The county commissioners have allowed the continued sale of legal fireworks in a roadside stand along Highway 82 south of Glenwood Springs even though they have banned use of those same fireworks.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said he hopes the actions by the towns to skip their fireworks shows will send a strong message to private citizens to leave their fireworks alone this year.

Deputies have been patrolling campgrounds and rural areas as part of their rounds and found good compliance with the restrictions, he said. The Forest Service is responsible for making sure campers outside of formal campgrounds are complying with the fire ban.

DiSalvo said he believes the 416 Fire near Durango, which started June 1, captured the attention of people and made them more cautious.

MacDonald is urging Pitkin County residents to go beyond being cautious. They should have an evacuation plan and prepare items they want to take.

"Even though we haven't had a fire in Pitkin County, we've had them all around us," she said. "Do we need to have a fire before we get everybody's attention?"

scondon@aspentimes.com

FIRE RESTRICTIONS IN PLACE

Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties all have or are preparing to implement Stage II fire restrictions. The White River National Forest is also preparing to implement Stage II restrictions. That means:

• No fires or campfires or any type, not even in formal campgrounds with fire grates. Charcoal grills are also banned.

• No smoking except within an enclosed vehicle, building or developed recreation site.

• No operating a combustion engine without a properly installed smoke-arresting device.

• No firework use.

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