How does Grand County decide fire restrictions?

Local officials talk matrix amid fire season

Grand County’s current fire danger is high, but other environmental factors indicate Stage 1 fire restrictions are appropriate for the area.
Sky-Hi News file photo

When Grand County reduced fire restrictions from Stage 2 to Stage 1 late last month, some people questioned the decision, but as Grand County’s sheriff explained, fire restrictions are tied to a complex matrix of data and judgment.

Stage 1 restrictions went into place in Grand County on Aug. 26, when the area met four out of eight factors on the fire restriction guideline matrix used in Northwest Colorado. The matrix is used by Grand, Jackson, Routt, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties, as well as the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management Kremmling Field Office and Fish and Wildlife Service.

The matrix is a set of environmental criteria, resource availability and potential hazards or impacts to the social, economic and public health environments. Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said the criteria are checked weekly with the federal land management partners providing the environmental data.

When a county meets four factors, the matrix suggests moving to Stage 1 restrictions. At five factors, the matrix suggests moving into Stage 2 restrictions. At seven factors, it suggests moving into Stage 3 restrictions.

“The matrix has been very accurate,” Schroetlin said. “We want to use it consistently, so in order to enter restrictions, we use the same science we do to come out of them.”

A majority of the matrix’s criteria evaluate environmental factors, including fuels moisture content, drought indicators, adverse fire weather, fuel conditions and the fire danger rating. Other factors, such as whether there is a high prevalence of human-caused fires, what fire resources are available and the potential hazards or impacts to social, economic and public health environments, are also taken into account.

Schroetlin said that can mean looking at local conditions, such as current COVID rates or other events that might impede a fire response, as well as considering economic factors like an upcoming holiday. However, Schroetlin emphasized that he relies most heavily on the environmental data.

“I like to use the climate data because it lets us make a decision that’s not political or social,” he said. “I don’t like (the economic factor) because it lets me put a judgment in there when we already have the scientific data.”

Though conditions can change, Schroetlin said recent trends for Grand County will keep restrictions at Stage 1 into the beginning of fall. Current factors in Grand that indicate the need for Stage 1 restrictions include low moisture content in fuels, high fire danger, predictions of adverse fire weather and drought levels.

“With the trends that we’re seeing, we’re comfortable in Stage 1 and anticipate staying in Stage 1 for another couple of weeks,” he said.

Additionally, Schroetlin said that while fire restrictions are important, so is personal responsibility, noting people have to follow the restrictions for them to be effective and, even then, restrictions can’t prevent all fires.

“No amount of restrictions are going to prevent some of the fires with the human component of things,” he said. “No matter how safe you are, there’s still a chance for fire.”

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