Pitkin County keeps fire ban in place despite recent rainfall | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County keeps fire ban in place despite recent rainfall

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Rainfall in Aspen this month already has exceeded the average for July, but local officials aren’t ready to relax the fire ban in Pitkin County.

In fact, county commissioners gave their confirmatory approval this week to an emergency ordinance enacted at the start of July that bans the use of fireworks. That ban remains in place, along with Stage 2 fire restrictions that prohibit not only open fires but use of charcoal grills and fire pits, outdoor smoking and the like.

“All the fire districts have talked. We feel the most prudent thing is to leave the fire ban in place,” said Ed Van Walraven, Aspen fire marshal.

Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said Thursday that he’s been questioned by residents who wonder why the restrictions remain in effect despite a monsoon season that appears well under way after an exceedingly dry June.

Intense but often brief or spotty rainstorms have yet to bring moisture levels in the vegetation back to levels that would make officials comfortable with easing the fire restrictions, Thompson said. Local fire crews were called to a wildfire sparked by lightning in the Cottonwood Pass area north of Basalt last weekend, and firefighters were called to an Old Snowmass ranch this week after lightning set a tree ablaze despite the rains.

Moisture content in large trees has improved somewhat, but in the scrub oak and sagebrush where wildfires often occur, the moisture content is “below low,” Thompson said.

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The deluges cause mudslides such as one that blocked Maroon Creek Road near Aspen earlier this week because the ground and vegetation don’t have time to absorb the water, Thompson said. Long, soaking rains such as those in many areas of the upper valley on Tuesday evening are what’s needed, he said.

Nonetheless, conditions might allow a reduction of the restrictions from Stage 2 to Stage 1 soon, according to Thompson. Stage 1 would allow the use of charcoal grills, camp stoves on private lands and outdoor fireplace devices so long as they’re outfitted with a spark arrester and a source of water is nearby. Eagle County dropped its restrictions to Stage 1 and the White River National Forest lifted its Stage 2 fire ban a week ago. Fire restrictions for private land in Garfield County and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in the Colorado River Valley will be dialed back to Stage 1 as of Friday, officials say.

The Pitkin County restrictions don’t apply on federal land.

As of Thursday morning, rain had fallen 15 days this month in Aspen, according to data kept by the Aspen Water Department. Rainfall for the month so far totaled 2.2 inches compared with an average for July of about 1.7 inches. In July 2011, Aspen saw 3.16 inches of rain, according to department records.

On Tuesday morning, the department recorded 0.32 inches in its rain gauge for the prior 24-hour period, the highest reading for the month to date. Five straight days of measurable rainfall were recorded before conditions dried out Wednesday.

Scattered showers return to Aspen’s forecast Friday.

“What scares me most is two days of hot, dry weather, and we’re right back to extreme,” Thompson said. “Two days of hot, dry weather with a bit of wind, and we could have a big fire.”

janet@aspentimes.com