U.S. Forest Service, Routt County officials threaten to close Routt National Forest
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the Middle Fork Fire reached over 20,000 acres and Routt County continues in Stage 2 fire restrictions, local officials said Monday that if recreators do not begin following restrictions they will close the Routt and Arapaho National Forests.
“We are in an unprecedented fire danger situation here,” said Eric Solomon, spokesperson for the Middle Fork Fire. “Any use of fuels is a danger absolutely.”
Solomon added that many fires spreading in the forests, not including the Middle Fork Fire, have been human-caused, mainly from unsupervised campfires which spread out of the fire ring and caught on the grass.
The Middle Fork Fire is currently at 1% containment, the highest containment level since it began burning in September.
Some question why the containment level isn’t higher at this point.
While it has caused pre-evacuations in Jackson County, because the fire is not close to property and is in thick forestry it is not safe for firefighters to set up containment lines on the ground, according to Aaron Voos, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’re seeing fire behavior that really isn’t very effective to take hand crews in and try to put out those fires,” Voos said. “To take a hand crew and walk them in there and expose them to all those hazards is not worth it.”
The fire is burning deep in the wilderness, which Voos and Solomon said is difficult to contain due to terrain and topography.
“It’s just really heavy fuels and it’s extremely difficult to cut line in,” Solomon said.
Crews are using aerial resources where possible, as to support the safety of firefighters on the ground. They are also setting containment lines where safe and possible, Solomon said. He expects the containment percentage to go up this week, especially if the snow and rain predicted for the weekend occur as forecasted.
“We’re putting folks into areas where there’s going to be a higher success rate for containment lines,” Solomon said.
Routt County is currently in Stage 2 fire restrictions, meaning no fuel or wood may be burned in the forest.
The Forest Service and Routt County Sheriff’s Office have both deployed law enforcement officials to give citations for those having campfires or otherwise burning anything in the forest.
Sgt. Brent Hunstead, with the sheriff’s office, said they have written a handful of citations for those not following restrictions. Though he said many of the fires they’ve come across involve propane fire rings, which are legal since they do not emit ash.
Hunstead said whether or not deputies issue a citation is case-by-case, but on the first offense, offenders will attend court, speak to a judge and usually receive a monetary fine.
Voos said closing the forest is a last resort, but officials will take that step if human-caused fires continue to pop up.
“We’re at the point where there are so many human starts that the next step would be closing the forest,” he said. “We absolutely don’t want to do that; that’s the last resort.”
Voos said a Routt National Forest closure would be the first in its history, but the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests along the Front Range had been closed Tuesday morning due to “unprecedented” fire activity.
A decision to close the forest is made between several agencies, Soloman said, but could come within hours of another human-caused fire.
“There comes a point with the historically dry fuel moistures that Colorado experiences that by the time fires start most of them become huge fires,” he said. “This forest is stunningly beautiful and it’s worth protecting.”
In addition to not holding campfires, Solomon advised people not to park on dry grass, use road flairs or smoke on forest land.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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