Grand County fire ban unlikely before May |

Grand County fire ban unlikely before May

The smoke column from the Church Park fire rises west of Fraser in October 2010. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News file photo
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

When the landscape is dry in the high country, fire fears call for one tool at our disposal to help control the worst: a fire ban.

The last fire restrictions in Grand County were issued in 2006 upon a standing resolution approved by county commissioners. The resolution can be reapplied whenever necessary.

Issuing a fire ban in the county is not done at the whim of any certain agency, but is based on scientific analysis, according to Grand County Sheriff Rod Johnson, who holds the position of authority on whether to initiate fire restrictions in Grand County. The fire restrictions ultimately are approved by county commissioners.

After 2003, when federal, state and private land managers were issuing bans inconsistently, an agreement was made among all agencies and the county within Grand County that the process would be streamlined.

“If one or the other restricts fires without all of them being together, we send a confusing message out there,” said Johnson.

Rocky Mountain National Park is excluded from the agreement.

Now fire restrictions are funneled countywide, upon county authority, based on scientific data from the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center and the Fort Collins Interagency Dispatch Center. These centers are operated by fire management officers from every ranger district. As it applies to Grand County, the centers cover Grand, Clear Creek, Gilpin, Larimer and Boulder counties.

The centers collect and report information about vegetation moisture, weather patterns, potential intensity for large fire growth, the fire-fighting resources available in the county, and the potential for human-triggered fires.

Each of these factors are boiled down to a numeric value on a checklist. A fire ban is declared upon meeting certain thresholds, based on that data. In Grand County, the threshold varies from the east end of the county to the west end, according to Johnson.

Starting next Wednesday, Johnson said, fire managers and he will engage in weekly conference calls.

“We discuss all these components and include what we’re observing in the way of fire behavior,” Johnson said. “We rely on these guys from the (U.S.) Forest Service and the BLM because they have all the experience behind this.”

A ban on fires is ultimately issued to try to prevent catastrophic fires, and the decision to ban fires may be based on the fact that the fire-fighting resources available in the county may not be adequate to address initial attacks, according to Johnson.

A ban on fires restricts open burning of any type – campfires, warming fires, bonfires, fires in pits, slash burning, charcoal-grill fires on public properties, fused explosives, fireworks and prescribed burning – and discourages smoking outdoors.

Exclusions are highlighted in the county’s standing ban ordinance, such as gas-fuel outdoor stoves, fireplaces within buildings, enclosed charcoal grills at private residences, commercial fireworks displays, and “campfires in permanent fire pits or grates located on developed picnic grounds and campgrounds.”

Some burning of irrigation ditches may also be allowed if sheriff’s approval has been granted in advance. A penalty for violations of the ordinance is set at $50, plus costs associated with extinguishing a fire or damages caused as a result of fire.

Historically, fires in Grand County are mostly caused by natural factors, such as lightning and trees falling on power lines during wind, according to Johnson.

“We have very few human-caused fires that go out of control,” he said, adding that fire bans only address the human quotient in fire starts, but the natural quotient is still at play.

“In Grand County, we live with fire and the potential for a wildfire is always going to be there,” he said. “Since we cannot eliminate fire from occurring, my concern is to take reasonable steps by using a sound methodology to prevent a large catastrophic fire.”

Johnson said he doubted fire restrictions would be issued as soon as next week.

Most weather reports show wet weather coming into Grand County this weekend into Monday.

“We had a fire yesterday northwest of Kremmling in grass and sagebrush that did not produce any signs of erratic fire behavior,” Johnson said on Thursday.

Fire restrictions may not be necessary until May, he said, but that may depend on precipitation.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we get there,” he said. “But I hate to be the predictor because it could start raining one of these days.”

– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603

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