Abandoning a campfire in Colorado could carry up to six months in jail under proposed law
Leaving a campfire unattended in Colorado could soon be punishable by up to six months in jail under a bill in the state legislature that aims to stamp out an increasingly common source of wildfires.
The measure, which sailed through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on a 60-1 vote Wednesday morning, would be a long-overdue update to century-old laws that barely penalize campers who start wildfires with a slap on the wrist, the bill’s sponsors say.
“One thing we realized last summer is that the penalty for doing something like leaving a campfire unattended and causing a catastrophic wildfire is 50 bucks,” said Rep. Millie Hamner (D–Dillon), who sponsored the bill along with Colorado Springs Republican Terri Carver. “Fifty bucks? Fighting those fires costs millions of dollars.”
Leaving a campfire unattended is currently a class-two petty offense and carries a $50 fine. If it passes the Republican-held Senate, House Bill 1051 would upgrade that to a class-three misdemeanor, with a maximum $750 fine, six months in jail or both.
The problem of unattended campfires has taken on new urgency in recent years. In 2016, a group of campers accidentally started the Cold Springs Fire near Nederland in Boulder County, which destroyed eight homes and forced thousands of evacuations.
Last summer, Summit County got a scare when the Peak 2 Fire scorched 80 acres near Breckenridge and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes. The fire, later found to be human-caused, prompted local officials to impose a burn ban. It didn’t have the desired effect.
“In the days after the Peak 2 Fire started we had a burn ban in place, but we still had numerous examples across Summit County of people leaving their campfires unattended,” said County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who has been pushing for the legislation since last summer. “Summit County has 156,000 acres of dead trees. All it takes is one lightning strike or one unattended campfire to start a catastrophic fire.”
While the Peak 2 Fire was still burning last July, crews from the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District had to snuff out at least five unattended campfires in a single day. One of them, near Bald Mountain, required a helicopter fighting the Peak 2 Fire to be diverted for bucket drops.
In September, as the 25-acre Tenderfoot 2 Fire burned near Dillon, fire crews were once again crisscrossing Summit County responding to reports of abandoned campfires.
“I strongly support the legislation change and believe that it will do some good,” RWB Chief Jim Keating said. “I certainly think it will get people’s attention, and we’re behind anything we can do to eliminate this problem that we’re seeing growing every year and posing serious dangers to our communities. It’s sad that we have to create legislation, but if that’s what it takes, we’re 100 percent behind it.”
The current penalty is not only negligible but also difficult for counties to collect at all; counties aren’t even allowed to levy the fine unless they have at least 20 signs posted warning people about it. The bill would eliminate that requirement, which is somewhat obsolete in the internet age.
“That’s a totally unfunded mandate, and there’s no clear definition of what that signage should look like,” Gibbs said. “It’s an arbitrary number, and it’s not relevant to current times.”
Hamner and Carver’s bill would require counties to give proper notification of the penalties but gives them more flexibility on how to do that. Its scope is also limited to fires on forested or grassland areas. Colorado Counties, Inc., a nonprofit for county commissioners, has thrown its support behind the bill, noting that the state’s below average snowpack could herald yet another extreme fire season this summer.
“The cost of fighting a wildfire can exceed a million dollars a day and saddle local communities with years of restoration work and recovery costs,” the group wrote in a fact sheet supporting the bill. “And yet current statute places the fine for leaving a campfire unattended at a mere fifty dollars. The time for stricter penalties is now.”
The bill will now move to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Sen. Don Coram (R-Montrose) and Sen. Michael Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs). Hamner said she is confident the bill will advance there as well.
“It’s bipartisan,” she said. “I think the fact that there was only one no vote on the entire House floor today shows that there is common interest in addressing this issue.”
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Firefighters have fully contained the 8-acre Straight Creek Fire, according to the most recent update from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson David Boyd.