Routt County discusses fire restrictions as summer dries; officials urge the public to remain vigilant about fire danger
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For the past two weeks, local, state and federal officials from Northwest Colorado have been holding weekly meetings to evaluate and track the region’s fire danger.
Routt County currently has no such restrictions, but that could change within the month as conditions typically get warmer and drier. Officials want the public to remain vigilant about the risk of fire, as it can change from week to week.
“Mother Nature can always change her mind,” said Fire Chief Mike Swinsick with the North Routt Fire Protection District, who has been a part of those weekly meetings.
This week, he said the county’s fire danger has fluctuated between moderate and high, a drastic improvement from last year, one of the worst and most expensive fire seasons on record.
“With the monsoonal flows we have been having, it has been keeping moisture levels up,” Swinsick said.
But depending on the weather in the coming weeks, he said the danger could rise to high or even very high. Adding to the potential risk is the amount of vegetation that has been flourishing with this year’s moisture.
“The grasses and hay are the tallest I have seen in a few years,” Swinsick said, which could dry out and create a fuel hazard.
He and other officials determine and implement fire restrictions based on seven criteria, including the number of active fires in the area and the amount of moisture in fuels, according to Kevin Thompson, a fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service.
- Before going hiking or camping, check with the forest, grassland or ranger district for fire restrictions or area closures.
- Use alternatives to campfires during periods of high fire danger, even if there are no restrictions. Nine out of 10 fires are caused by humans.
- If you build a campfire, make sure it is fully extinguished before leaving the area — be sure it is cold to the touch.
- If you are using a portable stove, make sure the area is clear of grasses and other debris that may catch fire. Prevent stoves from tipping and starting a fire.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles — pack out cigarette butts and burned materials from your camping area.
- Beware of sudden changes in the weather or changing weather conditions. For example, if you see a thunderstorm approaching, consider leaving the area. Fires started by lightning strikes are not unusual.
- If you see smoke, fire or suspicious activities, note the location as best you can and report it to authorities. Call the National Fire Information Center or 911.
- Do not attempt to contact suspicious people or try to put out a fire by yourself.
- Be careful of parking or driving your car or all-terrain vehicle in tall, dry vegetation, such as grass. The hot underside of the vehicle can start a fire.
Source: U.S. Forest Service
“For this week and probably the next I don’t see us going into restrictions,” Thompson said.
To measure those seven criteria, Forest Service officials collect data at sites across Northwest Colorado, such as the Dry Lake Campground on Buffalo Pass.
In Routt County, officials have identified just one criterion as a possible concern for fire danger — the amount of moisture, or lack thereof, in fuels above 9,000 feet — according to David “Mo” DeMorat, Routt County’s emergency operations director.
“Which is interesting because the last two years, by July 4, we had three or four indices tripped,” DeMorat said.
Another criterion — the energy release component, which measures the potential intensity of blazes — also has shown improvements compared to last summer, according to Thompson.
“Last year when we looked at (the energy release component) we were setting all-time records,” he said. “We were always in 90th and 97th percentile.”
This summer, he said the risk of intense fires has run about average from the previous 15 years, which is consistent with forecasts from wildfire meteorologists.
With more rain in the forecast, Thompson expects that risk to remain steady.
“This weekend is supposed to be a little drier, but next week should see monsoonal rains,” he said.
The National Weather Service in Grand Junction predicts a 40 to 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday, with scattered storms throughout most of next week.
But as all three officials warned, that moisture does not mean a wildfire cannot spark, particularly if people are not responsible with their own fires.
According to DeMorat, local officials have received multiple reports this summer of unattended campfires, or of fires in campsites that have not been completely extinguished.
Flames that escape campfires continue to be the leading human cause of wildfires, according to the Forest Service.
“Don’t get lulled into this false sense of security because we still have a lot of fire season yet to go,” DeMorat said.
As he recounted, many of the major fires in previous summers — namely the Deep Creek Fire in 2017 and the Murphy and Irwin fires in 2018 — started near Labor Day.
Thompson recommends campers avoid areas with tall grass or a lot of downed trees.
“(Beetle-killed trees) have been dead for a long time, and they are still very dry,” he said.
Conversely, he urges people to pitch their camps away from riparian areas, such as rivers, lakes and streams, to protect natural habitats.
To keep up to date about any future wildfires or other dangers that may impact the area, DeMorat recommended Routt County residents sign up for emergency alerts by visiting the Office of Emergency Management’s website.
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