Routt County joins growing number of agencies to issue Stage 1 fire ban
Counties, federal agencies and fire districts are coordinating on the bans, and fires will be banned in most of Northwest Colorado by Friday.
Routt County has instituted a Stage 1 fire ban starting Wednesday morning, part of a coordinated move with multiple counties and agencies to tamp down the risk of accidental fires early in a fire season some fear will be very active.
The U.S. Forest Service made the same move Tuesday night for all the agency’s land in Routt County with the restrictions also starting Wednesday morning. The Bureau of Land Management will institute the same ban.
“As everyone is aware, the conditions out there are very dry,” said Routt County Emergency Manager Mo DeMorat in a special meeting to approve the ban Wednesday. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had many fires at this point … but all around us, they are having numerous fires.”
Officials are making the move now — a month earlier than a ban was put in place last year — as Northwest Colorado is experiencing a heat wave, with record-high temperatures being seen in Steamboat Springs, and smoke from fires in other western states visible throughout the Yampa Valley.
“Everything is just so dry right now that any sort of spark could set off some kind of a fire,” said Brianna Bealo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “It is a proactive move on their part.”
Violating the fire ban will land someone with as much as a $100 fine for the first offense and as much as $200 for the second. For subsequent offenses, the maximum fine is $1,000.
This ban is the lesser of two levels of restrictions and is meant to prevent wildfires from starting from things like smoking or camping. Unless in a developed campsite with a permanent fire ring, building or using a fire is banned, including in barbecues and grills.
It also prohibits other hazardous activities, like smoking in certain areas, operating a chainsaw without additional safety features installed and welding or operating a torch. Use of explosives like fireworks is also banned.
Various counties and agencies gather for a weekly call about the fire risk, but these calls were initially not supposed to start until next week. DeMorat said the group ended up meeting Monday when some expressed a desire to institute restrictions now.
“It was unanimous,” DeMorat said about the group’s desire to put a ban in place.
The county has authority over unincorporated and state land in Routt County. Each city needs to do the same, and the city of Steamboat Springs has already said it will match the county’s restrictions.
In Oak Creek, fires already require a permit, and Fire District Chief Chuck Wisecup said he felt comfortable sticking with that level of restrictions for now. The town board would need to approve any increased restrictions.
Hayden will discuss restrictions at its board meeting Thursday, and Town Manager Matt Mendisco said historically, it has followed the county’s lead, but he would consult with the West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Trevor Guire on Wednesday.
The bans extend far beyond the county line, as the Forest Service ban includes the entire Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland, encompassing six counties in Colorado and nine in Wyoming.
The forest has already seen a fire this year, with the North Fork Fire burning just 2 miles north of Routt County earlier this month. There is also a fire burning in Moffat County now named the Collom Fire about 12 miles northwest of Meeker that has led to road closures.
Moffat, Grand, Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Dolores and La Plata counties have also announced fire bans, with some starting as soon as Wednesday. Other counties have taken steps to ban fireworks ahead of the July Fourth holiday.
Most of Routt County and Northwest Colorado in general is currently considered to be in exceptional drought, the highest designation used by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Last week the National Weather Service in Grand Junction issued a red flag warning, indicating weather is ideal for wildfires to start and spread, but that warning is no longer in effect. To issue the warning, meteorologists need to see a mix of humidity below 15% and sustained winds.
“Right now, because we don’t have the winds, we can’t issue red flag warnings, but that doesn’t mean that the humidity isn’t low enough where the fuels aren’t receptive,” Bealo said.
That is expected to change Thursday as stronger winds and thunderstorms are expected to develop. But these storms won’t provide any relief, as they likely won’t produce rain because temperatures will still be in the high 80s.
“Any sort of thunderstorms that do develop, it will mainly be virga,” Bealo explained, using a weather term referring to rain that evaporates before it makes it to the ground. “Much of these storms are going to be dry storms, so you get a lightning threat, which increases fire danger.”
Last year, restrictions were not put in place until the middle of July, being upgraded to Stage 2 restrictions in August, which put further restrictions on fires, especially for campers. The ban was not lifted until November.
“If I was going to bet, I can’t imagine we will be in Stage 1 for very long,” said Commissioner Beth Melton, implying a move to Stage 2 will eventually happen. “It is dire out there.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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