With heat, fire danger rising
'Stage 1’ restrictions take effect Monday
Originally published 2013-06-20
After a handful of lightning-sparked wildfires in the Gunnison Basin over the past week, authorities aren’t pressing their luck in trying to prevent an out-of-control burn.
The Gunnison County Commissioners honored a recommendation Tuesday by the Gunnison Basin Wildfire Council — a group comprised of local firefighters, law enforcement and emergency managers — to enact “Stage 1” fire restrictions. They’ll take effect this coming Monday, June 24 at 12:01 a.m.
Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service officials indicated this week that lands they manage in Gunnison County will come under the same restrictions Monday.
Stage 1 restrictions prohibit open burning of any kind and the use of fireworks. However, professional fireworks displays over the Fourth of July in the Gunnison and Crested Butte are still expected to take place as planned. The partial burn ban applies to both private and public lands in the county, but not within municipalities.
While a relatively wet spring kept fire danger at bay later this year than last, low moisture content in fuels and a continuing drought finally forced the hand of local authorities, they say.
Last year, Stage 1 restrictions were implemented May 21, followed by Stage 2 restrictions June 28.
Gunnison County Emergency Manager Scott Morrill said there’s been a concerted effort this year not only to standardize the language of the restrictions between jurisdictions in western Colorado but also to have those restrictions go into effect “reasonably close to the same time.”
In the surrounding counties of Archuleta, Delta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel, Stage 1 restrictions on BLM lands went into effect today. However, they’re expected to take effect Monday for Gunnison, Saguache and Hinsdale counties, said BLM spokesman Shannon Borders.
Pat Medina, fire management officer for the east zone of the Gunnison, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG), said that Stage 1 restrictions across the entire GMUG will also take effect Monday.
Medina said this week that a tool fire managers utilize to gauge the potential for an out-of-control wildfire reached a critical point in recent weeks.
The “energy release component” for fuels indicates the potential BTUs that would be released if a fire were to erupt. It’s a figure that takes into account fuel moisture, weather patterns, temperature and other factors among numerous different sites on the GMUG.
Earlier this month, the figure crested 90 percent — signaling that a fire could become difficult to control.
“It’s one of those critical checkpoints. It gives us the pause and the trigger to begin the dialogue for fire restrictions,” said Medina. “As we get into this kind of weather pattern and these high temperatures, we see it begin to progress upward.”
Recent lightning has sparked at least three separate blazes in the basin over the course of the last week.
Last Thursday, firefighters responded to a lightning-sparked fire west of Forest Service Road 724, which leads to Rainbow Lake, on the south side of the West Elk Wilderness. Gunnison Fire Marshal Dennis Spritzer said that the fire was on BLM property and burned about 9 acres.
Gunnison firefighters were close to forming a perimeter around the fire when federal crews arrived, and the fire was ultimately quelled, he said.
However, BLM firefighters were summoned to another fire started by lightning near Silver Jack Reservoir on Saturday.
Crested Butte firefighters also responded to a lightning-sparked fire on the east side of Whetstone Mountain Tuesday evening. Chief Rick Ems said the fire burned an area of national forest bordering private property that was only a fraction of an acre in size. The blaze was extinguished with assistance from Forest Service personnel within two hours of being called in.
More than half of Colorado was under a “red flag” warning — indicating conditions conducive to wildfire — Tuesday.
As fires are currently burning in other parts of the state and West, the County Commissioners didn’t question the local wildfire council’s recommendation. They voted unanimously to enact the Stage 1 restrictions.
Fire Marshal Spritzer said that authorities would rather be safe than sorry.
“Economically it’s never good. It’s something we don’t like doing,” he said. “But we’ve got forests here that haven’t burned for a long time.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)