Even with a wildfire burning near Parachute, data directs Roaring Fork sheriffs to hold off on bans

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story reported that the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office instituted a fire ban from May 31 to July 5. That is incorrect. The ordinance passed by the county commissioners Wednesday granted the authority to institute a ban throughout 2023 to the Sheriff’s Office, with special emphasis on May 31- July 5. The article has been updated to reflect that change.

A snowy winter and a wet spring bring flowers — and fuel for wildfires. A major wildfire is still burning near Parachute. But across the Roaring Fork Valley, sheriffs and counties are waiting to institute fire bans until data indicates that they should do so, while still cautioning the public.

“The wet spring and the great snowpack we had simply did nothing but delay wildfire season,” said Pitkin County emergency manager Valerie MacDonald. “This is a special year. We’re having high water days and fire season.”

For unincorporated Pitkin County, the board of commissioners passed an emergency ordinance to allow the Sheriff’s Office to prohibit the sale, use, and possession of fireworks and to ban open fires. 

“The recent rain and green up of our area has painted an inaccurate picture. We are still at great risk,” said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta. “Actually, during conversation this morning with our public safety council, (they) indicated that the grass is what they call fine fuel and is rapidly drying out in the midvalley and working its way upvalley.”

The ordinance grants the Sheriff’s Office authority to institute a ban throughout 2023, and names May 31 to July 5 as a period of special focus due to 4th of July celebrations. Burchetta noted that not bringing the ban to the commissioners sooner was an oversight. The backdate on the resolution is a reflection of that mistake. 

Emergency ordinances go into effect immediately as opposed to the normal 30-day delay after passage by the commissioners. 

Commissioner Steve Child noted that a constituent emailed him asking why the county would even consider instituting a fireworks and fire ban after such a wet winter and spring. And he said he has seen firsthand how quickly the damp soil changed under hot, dry, windy weather. 

“As an irrigator, I will vouch for the fact that the ground has dried out incredibly fast and in places that we have not come to irrigate on yet. It’s hard to push water across the field already,” Child said. “In spite of all the rain we had this spring, which was wonderful, it has just dried out incredibly quickly.”

Still, MacDonald said the county is not yet seeing conditions and metrics strong enough to constitute a fire ban, though they are keeping watch as the weather gets hotter and drier. 

And the rapidly-changing weather has threatened river recreators, as well. High levels from the snowpack have created fun, yet potentially dangerous conditions for kayakers or anyone else who ventures into the valley’s rivers. 

She and the commissioners urged tourists and locals to be realistic about their skill level and not take unnecessary risks. 

When to say ‘no fires’

The Spring Creek Fire is burning just southwest of Parachute in Garfield County. As of Friday morning, the fire is 21% contained and sized at 2,910 acres.

Garfield County Emergency Manager Chris Bornholdt said that his county has not yet instituted a fire ban, and they based that decision at least partially on the Energy Release Component, a metric for measuring fire risk. Pitkin County also uses the ERC in its determination of whether or not to institute a fire ban, a decision made in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

The Forest Service defines the ERC as “an output of the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS). The ERC is a number related to the available energy (BTU) per unit area (square foot) within the flaming front at the head of a fire.”

Bornholdt directed questions to Garfield County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Walt Stowe for further questions. Stowe said that a decision on whether or not to institute a ban is expected Friday or Saturday.

In Pitkin County, chief deputy of operations Parker Lathrop explained that part of the reason why there is no fire ban is the differing geography between the elevations.

“There’s different fuel models for different areas and specific to what we have up here with our fuel models — that’s our makeup of aspens and the grass that we have — we’re not at that heightened risk. When you look down in Garfield County at what’s burning and what isn’t burning, they have their elevation change,” Lanthrop said. “Their geography varies pretty widely across their county. Where the fire is burning … it’s a finer fuel. Cheatgrass is the main body of their ground fuels and we don’t have that up here in our elevation.”

But not all counties and sheriffs’ offices go by the Energy Release Component. Eagle County passed an ordinance in 2019 that states Red Flag Fire Warnings automatically trigger Stage 1 Fire Restrictions.

Right now, there is no such restriction in Eagle County. But that does not mean Fourth of July celebrators can light fireworks in their backyard, due to state law. 

“Unless we have some extreme circumstances, like an active fire requiring the attention of our fire departments, we will have professional fireworks shows in Eagle County this year,” said Eagle County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Ashley LaFleur. “Please leave the fireworks to the professionals. Colorado law prohibits personal fireworks that explode or leave the ground. If you’re caught using these, you could get a ticket.”


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