Fire restrictions upgraded

Many areas now at Stage 2, upper elevations rules added

Fire restrictions on public lands managed by the San Juan National Forest and Bureau of Land Management Tres Rios Field Office were upgraded on Wednesday, as the first day of summer brought no relief from the dry, hot and windy weather in the region.

The upgrade comes just 11 days after fire restrictions were first put in place on U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands in Dolores and Montezuma counties. Initial precautions placed Stage 1 restrictions on lower and middle elevation public lands, while allowing for normal activity in high elevations.

Wednesday, lower elevations were placed under Stage 2 restrictions and upper elevations received their first restrictions of the year, placed at Stage 1.

Under the Stage 1 restrictions, campfires are limited to permanent fire rings or grates within developed campgrounds; smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings, or areas cleared of vegetation; chain saws and other “internal-combustion engines” must have approved, working spark arresters; acetylene and other torches with an open flame may not be used; and, the use of explosives is prohibited, according to a press release form the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch.

Stage 2 restrictions maintain the restrictions of Stage 1, in addition to the following: building, maintaining, attending or using any fire, campfire or woodstove is completely prohibited; smoking is only allowed within an enclosed vehicle or building; use of chainsaws and other internal-combustion engines must be accompanied onsite by a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher of not less than 8 ounces weight capacity and a size 0 or larger round pointed shovel with an overall length of at least 36 inches.

Craig Goodell, fire mitigation and education specialist for the San Juan National Forest, said the decision to upgrade fire restrictions was based on a number of factors, including human interaction with the forest.

“It is really about the fuel and weather conditions, Goodell said. “Also, we look at whether or not we are having incidents of human-caused fires and unattended campfires. So we look at the overall risk factors.”

Goodell said Forest Service and BLM patrols have already found small human-caused fires and unattended campfires on public lands in Southwest Colorado this season. Fortunately, all were caught early and put out before damage was caused.

“That tells us we need to upgrade our restrictions and just ban some of those fires,” Goodell said.

The fire restrictions in place mimic or extend beyond the statewide fire ban implemented by Gov. Hickenlooper on June 14.

“The governor’s statewide fire ban is really Stage 1 restrictions,” Goodell said. “We have the ability to be more restrictive than that statewide ban on the federal lands if we choose.”

The Forest Service and BLM utilize a three-stage fire restriction matrix to protect public lands in years of high fire danger. While Stage 1 and 2 simply curtail certain behaviors on public lands, Stage 3 restrictions limit access to public lands.

“Stage 3 restrictions are closures,” Goodell said. “There are a variety of ways we can implement that with either limited closures or close all the public lands in certain areas.”

Goodell said while it is too early to say how fire restrictions will play out for the remainder of the season, early indicators point to a fire danger on the forest that may be worse than 2002.

Summer of 2002 was one of the worst fire seasons ever seen in Colorado. The two largest fires in the state’s history kept the state shrouded in smoke for months. The Missionary Ridge Fire, near Durango, burned nearly 73,000 acres, and the Hayman Fire, southwest of Denver, was responsible for more than 138,000 charred acres.

Goodell said conditions this year have reached a point nearly worse than that record-setting fire season.

“We are hitting some record levels,” he said. “We are at or above where we were in 2002 in terms of our fire danger.”

As a result, Goodell said, closures on public lands are possible if weather conditions don’t change.

“Closures are possible. We will be watching our fire danger indices and our fuel conditions and our incidents of human-caused fires, and if there is a clear need to upgrade again, we will do that,” he said. “We are hoping we will be OK with what we’ve got now, but if we get another two or three weeks of hot, dry, windy weather, it could be necessary.”

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.