Two small wildfires in the Aspen area this week signaled an early start to what public safety officials are warning could be an explosive fire season.
“I’ve never seen it this dry this early in the year,” said Aspen Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven.
With snowpack in the Colorado River Basin at less than 50 percent of average, the forests and soil surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley are drier and more susceptible to fire than normal. The area has experienced unusually warm temperatures, along with scant snowfall, since early March. The entire state is likewise in the midst of a drought. Most of Western Colorado and Northeastern Utah were under a “red flag” fire warning issued by the National Weather Service on Friday.
The combination of this week’s high winds with gusts up to 50 mph, and low relative humidity of 7 to 12 percent, contributed to what the weather service characterized as continued “explosive fire growth potential.”
Local and federal fire officials compared the situation to 2002, when giant blazes including the Glenwood Springs Coal Seam fire and Front Range Hayman fire took hold.
As a precaution on Thursday, the sheriff’s office enacted a countywide fire ban. On Friday, public safety officials launched the website www.pitkinemergency.org  to keep the public informed about the ban and precautions.
Van Walraven said, to his knowledge, there’s never been a fire ban enacted so early before.
In 2002, the sheriff’s office and the U.S. Forest Service didn’t see fit to enact a fire ban until May.
“It doesn’t bode well,” Van Walraven said of the unusually dry April. “I don’t know what the long-range forecast is, but everybody is concerned.”
Aspen Fire Chief Willard Clapper added in a Friday press release: “Aspen is prime for a forest fire right now.”
Potential fire fuels, like dead trees and fallen branches, in the local forests are abnormally dry for April, said Bill Hahnenberg, the fire management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, which oversees Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property.
The Forest Service also has stopped all of its planned controlled burns.
They already have issued precautions and warnings for forest users, but haven’t yet put outright restrictions on forest use. If drought conditions persist, the agencies could ban campfires in forest fire pits, or close portions of public land to visitors. The White River National Forest has never closed due to fire risk, according to agency spokesman Bill Kight. But fire danger closures have been issued in the past during droughts in Arizona, Montana and elsewhere, he said.
The feds’ fire helicopter, based in Rifle, normally does not come online until June 1. Due to this year’s conditions, forest officials have moved the start date up by two weeks, to May 20.
For people on the border of forests, within the “wildland urban interface,” Hahnenberg stressed the importance of clearing potential fuels from backyards — and doing it now.
“This spring it is very important for them to be really serious about clearing away fuels on private land,” he warned.
Beyond enacting a fire ban, public safety officials have to count on people to be careful to keep the community safe.
“I would urge people to be cautious with everything from barbecues on the back porch, to campfires, to putting out cigarettes,” said Darryl Grob, the retired longtime Aspen fire chief who now works as a wildfire consultant to the county.
He said he believes firefighters in the Roaring Fork Valley are well-prepared to control wildfires. The blazes that took hold this week — one up Highway 82 east of Aspen, the other up Castle Creek Road near Conundrum Creek Road — were quickly extinguished without damaging nearby homes.
About 80 percent of wildfires are believe to be caused by humans. So controlling human behavior is considered the best defense against destructive fire. Van Walraven joked that the three leading causes of wildfires are “men, women and children.”
“People just need to be careful and use common sense,” he said. “If you don’t have to burn anything, don’t burn it.”
The local ban applies to all public and private land in Pitkin County. Its precautions include the following:
• Use of any fireworks or explosives requiring fuses or blasting caps is prohibited.
• All fires are prohibited except in gas grills and permanent fire pits in campgrounds; no makeshift fire pits.
• Smoking is prohibited, except within an enclosed vehicle or building. Never throw cigarette butts out of car windows.
• If you operate any internal combustion engine, such as a chainsaw or motorcycle, it must have a spark-arresting device properly installed.
• Welding with an open flame also is prohibited unless you are in an area cleared of all flammable materials at least 10 feet on all sides of the equipment.