Routt County to go under Stage 1 fire restrictions as hot, dry weather increases risk

Smoke from the Middle Fork Fire created a pyrocumulus cloud that enchanted and astonished Steamboat Springs residents in the fall of 2020.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Routt County will institute Stage 1 fire restrictions at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, in a coordinated effort across multiple agencies to limit burning as the potential for fire increases amid hot and dry weather.

The restrictions — the lesser of two options — prohibit open fires outside of an established campground, picnic area or developed recreation site on all private and state land in Routt County.

Partner agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and City of Steamboat Springs are putting the same restrictions in place.

“Practically speaking, it is a countywide Stage 1 fire ban,” said Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan prior to approving restrictions on Wednesday, Sept. 7. “I’ve received a couple of contacts from citizens wondering why we haven’t already done this.”

These are the first such restrictions in Routt County this year after similar measures were put in place for much of last summer. But a strong monsoonal push has kept the Yampa Valley greener this year, keeping fire risk lower. Now that greenery is drying out, it has become a worrisome fuel for fire officials.

Fire officials meet weekly to assess conditions and weigh additional fire prevention measures. At the last meeting on Monday, Sept. 5, five of the eight wildfire hazard metrics had been met in part of Routt County, and four had been met across the rest of the county, said Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar.

These metrics include how dry various fuels are, drought indicators, current fire danger and the upcoming weather forecast, among others.

Only four of these metrics are required before Stage 1 restrictions are put in place. Stage 2 restrictions are considered when five metrics are met and the county is already under a Stage 1 ban.

These signs will meet people as they enter the forest as Routt County and partner agencies instituted a Stage 1 fire ban that will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, Sept 8, 2022.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Forest Service will also institute a Stage 1 ban, extending restrictions that were already in place in parts of Wyoming to the entire Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland.

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“Many of our starts that we’ve had to deal with, some of which have turned into large fires over the past few years, have been human-caused fires during the fall,” said Aaron Voos, spokesperson for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. “It’s been a time of year where it’s been a problem, so putting restrictions in place can help with that.”

The East Troublesome Fire started in October 2020 in Grand County, and burned 193,812 acres, making it the second largest fire in state history. A week after it started, the fire grew by nearly 90,000 acres in a day and would eventually claim more than 500 structures and kill two people.

Stage 1 fire restrictions in Routt County

The following acts are prohibited:

1. Building, maintaining, attending or using any fire to burn trash, debris, fence rows, irrigation ditches or vegetation, any campfire, warming fire, charcoal grill, except in designated campgrounds, picnic areas or developed recreational sites.

2. Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreational site, or while stopped in an area of at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.

3. Operating a chainsaw without a USDA or SAE approved spark arresting device (muffler) properly installed and in effective working order, and a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher of not less than 8 ounce capacity by weight, and one round pointed shovel with an overall length of at least 36 inches. The extinguisher will be with the chainsaw operator. The shovel may be kept with the fueling supplies but readily available for quick use.

4. Welding or operating acetylene or other torch with open flame; except within an area that is barren or cleared of all flammable material at least 10 feet on all sides from the equipment.

5. Using explosives requiring fuses or blasting caps.

Forest Service investigators said earlier this year the fire was human-caused, likely by a hunter or backcountry camper.

North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Mike Swinsick said his crews have come across several unattended smoldering campfires in undeveloped areas recently that could have easily led to a big fire.

“Just pulling off the road and saying, ‘I’m going to camp here and have a fire in the unestablished (fire ring), surrounded by rocks,’” Swinsick said. “A good gust of wind could blow those embers right out of that ring and into nearby vegetation that’s cured out and dry now, and off it goes.”

Swinsick said even a light breeze of 5 mph can push a fire burning in grass to a pace as fast as most people can run.

Another factor is relative humidity, said Brady Glauthier, chief of the Oak Creek Fire Protection District. Humidity typically gets lower in the heat of the day, but recovers at night. However, that overnight recovery has been diminishing.

“It stays dry, which means (a fire) would burn through the night,” Glauthier said. “All the grasses are turning brown, and we walk out in the woods and things are actually crispy. You can feel it, you can grab leaves and they’re crunchy.”

The extended forecast has little precipitation in the next two weeks, but there are chances for lightning, which started at least three recent large fires in Routt County.

The Middle Fork Fire was sparked by lightning in North Routt in September 2020 and eventually burned more than 20,000 acres.

“I don’t believe it was too much drier (in 2020) than we are now,” Swinsick said.

In addition to campfires, the Stage 1 ban also limits smoking outside of a vehicle or developed area, using a chainsaw without a spark-arresting device equipped, welding with an open-flame torch near flammable materials and using explosives that require a fuse or blasting cap.

Beyond the restrictions, Glauthier said homeowners should consider cutting tall grass near their home to increase defensible space.

“Those tall, two- to four-foot grasses out there, mow them down, get them away from your structures,” Glauthier said. “Tall grass is a great carrier of fire and it moves fast, so fast that we usually can’t catch up to it until it starts catching other things on fire.”

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