– The same day San Miguel County’s emergency ban on open fires went into effect, and only hours after a fire razed a house in downtown Telluride, Mountain Village government officials from around the region met for their regularly scheduled Intergovernmental Work Session. Fire concerns, sparked by late-spring dry and windy weather, proved a hot topic on the day’s agenda, with officials from different government entities expressing serious concerns about what the summer has in store for this scorched pocket of western Colorado. San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters painted a disquieting picture of the region’s current and future landscape for fire danger, recounting the sober tenor of a regional interagency wildfire meeting he attended at the end of May. In that meeting, fire chiefs, law enforcement officers, and Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service representatives from Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Delta and San Miguel counties expressed heightened levels of concern about the coming fire season. “Normally, it’s the counties pushing for the fire restrictions,” Masters explained. “But this is the first year I’ve heard the tone of the federal officials to be extremely concerned. Everyone’s really pushing to put fire restrictions in place as soon as possible.” Concern among the region’s fire officials is sparked by the knowledge that with every passing day the region doesn’t receive precipitation, the forests and wildlands of western Colorado become more at risk for a potentially devastating wildfire. As Masters explained, the Energy Release Component – a National Fire Danger Rating System index related to how hot a fire could burn – is currently at 90 percent in the area. ERC ratings are directly related to the total available energy (BTUs) per unit area (in square feet) within the flaming front at the head of a fire – measuring, in other words, how much tinder there could be if a fire were to start in a certain location. In comparison, this time last year the ERC rating was 60 percent. The closer the rating gets to 100 percent, the more explosive the fire danger is. In response to increasing rising fire danger levels, the Town of Mountain Village, in conjunction with the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, imposed an emergency restriction on open fires effective Monday, June 11. Specifically prohibited activities include: building, maintaining, attending or using any fire to burn trash, debris or vegetation; any campfire, warming fire, and any paper or wood grills; smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle, building or area at least three feet in diameter that is cleared of all flammable material; fireworks of any kind; operating a chainsaw without a USDA or SAE approved spark arresting device properly installed and in effective working order, or a chop saw for cutting steel, unless the operator has in his/her immediate possession a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher and shovel; welding or operating an acetylene or other torch with open flame except within an area that is barren or cleared of all flammable material at least ten feet on all sides from the equipment; and using explosives requiring fuses or blasting caps. The ban does not apply to gas barbecues; charcoal fires in a properly enclosed firepan or other enclosed device specifically designed for the purpose of burning charcoal; or permanent fireplace locations and enclosures. The ban imposed by Mountain Village and San Miguel County represents a Level 1 fire ban, but as Masters said at the Monday meeting, the region could see restrictions becoming stricter as the hot and dry trend continues. Although long-term weather are for not much of a monsoon season this summer, upcoming typically wet weather patterns could still bring lightning storms, and thus the potential for lighting-sparked wildfires. The cost of fighting wildfires prompted a sober discussion among government officials from Telluride, Mountain Village, Ophir, and San Miguel County, especially as the now-contained Sunrise Mine fire near Paradox, and the massive fire presently burning near Fort Collins, offered current examples of the high cost of fighting fires. As of Tuesday, the High Park Fire burning in Larimer County had scorched close to 50,000 acres, and there was little hope that the blaze would be contained anytime soon. That fire has hundreds of firefighters on scene, battling the blaze with support from multiple tankers and helicopters. The expense for an emergency response effort of this kind adds up quickly, Masters warned. “We could easily spend a million dollars in an afternoon, fighting a private property fire,” he said, describing the high cost of helicopters, fire retardant tankers, and firefighter pay.
With major fires like the High Park fire draining the state’s firefighting resources early in the fire season, regional government officials should expect limited outside resources available for fighting a fire in the region, Masters continued. USFS Acting Forest Supervisor Sherry Hazelhurst reiterated Masters’ concerns that the summer is already shaping up as extraordinarily challenging for local, state and federal entities charged with fighting fires, with $4 million now being spent daily on firefighting efforts across the nation, with available emergency funds quickly dwindling to nothing, Hazelhurst said. “The message we really want to get across is that we are so far out of normal conditions right now… this year is out of the ordinary for all of us,” she said of the current fire landscape in the drought-ridden southwest. A coordinated fire ban effort is underway, she continued, with Level 1 restrictions going into effect in Gunnison, Manti-La Sal, and San Juan National Forests, in addition to the restrictions in San Miguel County and elsewhere across the state. Local elected officials attending Monday’s meeting asked San Miguel County Sheriff Masters and USFS representatives how their communities could better prepare for a fire emergency in the region. Masters explained that fire evacuation routes are not like evacuation routes for other natural disasters, like tsunamis, since it is difficult to predict where a fire will happen ahead of time, and thus what a safe escape route would be. The County has purchased a fleet of Road Closed and Evacuation Route signs, and has enlisted the help of the Search and Rescue team to organize evacuation efforts in the case of a wildfire in the area, Masters said. Citizens need to be signed up for the WENS (Wireless Emergency Notification System,) which will send a text and/or email message to all those enrolled outlining the nature of any emergency (enroll at www.sanmiguelcounty.org/preparedness/index.html.) But additionally, Masters said, citizens should be prepared to evacuate on their own if they feel it necessary. The deadly fire near Conifer, Colorado, last March gives an example of how emergency systems can break down in the midst of a crisis. “The people who were calling 9-1-1 knew more about that fire than the dispatchers did,” Masters explained. “Maybe the best thing we can do is tell our citizens that their own observations are the best things they may have, and that they could have to be ready to take matters into their own hands and evacuate at any time.” For more information on local fire bans, visit HYPERLINK "http://www.sanmiguelcounty.org/firewise.html" www.sanmiguelcounty.org/firewise.html. Up-to-date fire information is available at www.coemergency.com/p/fire-ban-info.html.