Fanning the flames: Recent wildfires near Steamboat spark concern over controlled burns, COVID-19 response | SteamboatToday.com
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Fanning the flames: Recent wildfires near Steamboat spark concern over controlled burns, COVID-19 response

A rancher watches controlled burns east of Hayden.
Katie Berning

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A large wildfire erupted in a remote area south of Hayden in what appears to be the first major blaze of the year in Routt County. 

Multiple firefighting agencies responded to the fire near the Indian Run area. It had grown to about 375 acres as of 5:45 p.m., according to firefighters on scene. Plumes of smoke were visible from Hayden.

At 4:05 p.m., Routt County Emergency Management sent a message alerting residents in the Williams Fork and Motherwell Ranch area to be prepared to evacuate due to the fire.

High winds fed the flames, with gusts reaching 30 mph, according to Routt County Emergency Operations Director David “Mo” DeMorat. The burn site consists of brush and some trees.

As of Thursday evening, officials believed the fire to be human caused.

Fighting fires and a pandemic

This comes after three smaller fires broke out in different areas of the county Wednesday, putting officials on high alert as they try to manage already stressed resources amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Wednesday wildfires started from what were supposed to be controlled burns. The first fire of the day, an out-of-control agricultural burn, was called in just after 11 a.m. along Routt County Road 8 west of Yampa. Then around noon, another agricultural burn near Hayden grew beyond the farmer’s control. 

In both cases, firefighters quickly were able to extinguish the flames without damage to any structures, according to fire chiefs in those areas. 

At 2:40 p.m., firefighters received the third report of a wildfire on a ranch along C.R. 24 near the Haymaker Golf Course. That blaze, which grew to about 2 acres, was the result of an illegal burn pile, according to Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Interim Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli. Burn piles are not allowed after April 15, he said. 

The farmer responsible received a citation and a court summons for the illegal burn, Cerasoli said. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cerasoli said it is more important than ever for people to obey fire restrictions and to be careful when conducting legal burns. Extinguishing even smaller fires requires a large crew, he said, which takes resources away from potential medical emergencies. 

“With this pandemic going on, anything that takes our entire staff away to be working on something else limits their availability to emergency response and ambulance response,” Cerasoli said. 

It is difficult for firefighters to practice health guidelines while they are battling blazes, he added, which poses concerns over disease transmission. 

“It puts our entire staff at risk,” Cerasoli said. 

Fires also could harm the general public’s health. Studies have shown a link between poor air quality, which includes pollutants from smoke, and worsened symptoms for COVID-19 patients. 

Though it is early in the fire season, much of the vegetation in the area, such as sagebrush and oak brush, is still in its dormant stage, meaning it is very dry, according to Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup. The dry vegetation can cause fires to spread quickly, even if the ground is moist.

Before starting a fire, you should understand:
  • Firefighting resources may not be able to respond to your aid, and you may be solely responsible for extinguishing the fire and any associated liability.
  • Out-of-control fires may result in criminal charges if the fire moves onto private property of others.
  • You can be civilly and criminally responsible for out of control fires due to negligence or unsafe burning practices.

DO NOT:

  • Intentionally start an open burn without a signed permit. Violators will be issued a citation with fines ranging from $500 up to $1,500 for violations under state statute C.R.S 25-7-123.
  • Start an agriculture burn or controlled burn without first calling Routt County Communications and advising that you are conducting a burn. Please provide the time and location prior to starting the burn.
  • Start any type of burn unless conditions are safe and personal resources are readily available to attack fires that may become out of control, even if you have a permit. Know your limitations.
  • Violate any current fire restriction in place. If you have a question, call your fire district.

Source: Routt County Sheriff’s Office

To reduce the number of fires during the pandemic, the U.S. Forest Service has banned all recreational fires on Forest Service land in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests. The restrictions apply to campfires, charcoal grills and barbecues, coal and wood-burning stoves and sheepherders’ stoves, according to a news release from the Forest Service. 

In a separate news release, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office said it is considering tightening fire restrictions across the county. For now, agricultural burns and other controlled burns are allowed with proper permits. To obtain a permit, call the local fire district or visit co.routt.co.us/164/open-burning.

People who violate these rules could get a fine ranging from $500 to $1,500 under Colorado revised statutes, according to the Sheriff’s Office. 

If calls for fires continue to raise concerns, officials said they would tighten restrictions even further. 

“We ask the community to consider how stressed local county and municipal government resources are at this time due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sheriff Garrett Wiggins, who also acts as the county’s fire warden, said in the release. 

Wildfire mitigation

During an average year, about 4,500 wildfires are reported across the state, burning around 168,000 acres, according to data from the Colorado State Forest Service. Fire seasons have grown more intense and damaging in the last decade for a number of reasons, from drought to past forest management. 

In response to the worsening effects of fires, local agencies have prioritized mitigation efforts to prevent large blazes that can cost millions of dollars to extinguish. Last year marked the first Routt County Mitigation Conference that aimed to help to educate residents on how to prepare their homes for fire season.

On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis designated May as Wildfire Awareness Month. It presents an opportunity for residents to reduce the risk of fires around their houses. Taking simple steps, such as removing dry, dead debris from around structures and devising an evacuation plan among family members, could save homes and lives. 

Wildfire mitigation tips
  • Rake and remove pine needles and dry leaves 5 feet from the home, as well as under decks, porches, sheds and play structures.
  • Remove leaves and needles from roofs and gutters.
  • Sweep porches and decks clear of any burnable plant material.
  • Move firewood piles at least 30 feet from the house, preferably uphill.
  • Transfer items under decks or porches to a storage area.
  • Cover any exposed eave or attic vents with 1/8-inch metal mesh screening.
  • Ensure home address signs are clearly visible from the street.
  • Confirm at least one alternate path out of your neighborhood other than the one most commonly used and be prepared for potential evacuation requiring the alternative route.
  • Sign up for Routt County Alerts

Source: Colorado State Forest Service

Residents also can sign up for Routt County Alerts, which sends out notifications of any emergencies in the area. To sign up, follow the link on the county’s website: co.routt.co.us/144/communications.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.


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