Fire chief: Routt County ‘dodged a bullet’ during wildfire season |

Fire chief: Routt County ‘dodged a bullet’ during wildfire season

Water is sprayed on a wildfire Aug. 3 near the Hayden Station power plant. Not accounting for numerous small lightning-caused fires in Routt National Forest, there were 51 wildfires in Routt County that burned an estimated 1,091 acres, Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said.

— Drought conditions led to an active wildfire season in Routt County, especially early on, but officials said it could have been a lot worse.

"I definitely think we dodged a bullet," West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bryan Rickman said.

Some residents in North Routt County feared a wildfire season similar to the one in 2002, when 41,900 acres burned in the Routt National Forest and cost Routt County $182,880. Conditions were so ripe for a large-scale fire this spring and summer that a North Routt community meeting was held to help residents make preparations. North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley urged residents to come up with a plan, to strengthen the defensible space around their homes and to sign up to receive alerts from the Code Red emergency communications system. The focus on being prepared came just days after the Waldo Canyon Fire started in Colorado Springs on June 23, burning 346 homes.

"The potential was there to have a very large fire like we saw on the Front Range," Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said Wednesday.

As the summer played out, Routt County was spared of any large, complex fires.

Not accounting for numerous small lightning-caused fires in Routt National Forest, there were 51 wildfires in Routt County that burned an estimated 1,091 acres, Struble said. No structures were destroyed, no lives were lost, and Struble was not aware of any firefighter injuries.

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This year, the county spent $88,328 on fighting wildfires, significantly more than the $10,000 it budgeted. The money was reimbursed to the local fire districts that fought the fires. State statute puts fighting wildfires under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff's office, but rather than equipping the Routt County Sheriff's Office with firefighters and equipment, the county reimburses the fire districts for costs incurred by fighting wildfires.

"$88,000 is a small cost (compared) to what could have happened," Struble said.

Of the 51 Routt County fires, 35 were human caused and 16 were sparked by lightning.

The human-caused fires began in March, when ranchers began doing agricultural burns that frequently got out out control.

"It seemed like every day we were getting one or two," Struble said.

The largest human-caused fire started April 10, when an agricultural burn got out of control at a ranch along Routt County Road 31 in the southern part of the county. The Middle Creek Fire burned about 225 acres of vegetation and cost the county $14,818 in reimbursements to fire departments. Federal agencies helped at the fire and did not ask to be reimbursed by the county. Struble estimated the true total cost to fight that fire might have been $100,000.

"Through good cooperation with federal partners, we responded to the fires and hit them hard and kept the acreage low," Struble said.

A day after the Middle Creek Fire, fire restrictions were recommended that would prohibit agricultural burns, among other things. The Stage 1 restrictions went into effect April 18, and other area towns and cities followed. Routt County imposed Stage 2 restrictions June 27, which essentially banned any open flames, including recreational campfires. Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins even grounded the 32nd annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo on July 7 and 8 because of the fire danger. Concerns about starting a wildfire also canceled the July 4 fireworks show in Steamboat Springs.

"The biggest complaint I got this year was people not being able to have that recreational fire in their backyard," Struble said.

The restrictions effectively stopped the human-caused fires, and more relief came July 6, when 1.78 inches of rain fell in Steamboat, setting a new record for rainfall in a single day in July. With 3.23 inches of rain in July, Steamboat Springs ended up seeing its fifth-wettest July on record dating back to the early 20th century.

Drought conditions persisted, though. During the summer, Rickman said West Routt firefighters responded to the shooting range near Hayden about 10 times for fires caused by people firing guns. One such fire burned about 20 acres Aug. 6.

Routt County lifted its fire restrictions Aug. 14, but officials urged people to be careful because of dry conditions.

Even with snow visible at higher elevations, Struble said it still is dry and more than 6 inches of rain is needed to return Routt County to normal conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of Routt County is experiencing a severe drought, and the northwest corner of the county is experiencing extreme drought conditions.

"Routt County is still in severe drought," Struble said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email