Lifting of statewide fire ban does not include Aspen

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper lifted the statewide fire ban Sunday, but restrictions on campfires, charcoal grills and other open flames remain in place, at least for the time being, in Pitkin and Garfield counties and the White River National Forest.

Afternoon and evening rains returned to the valley on June 28, following an exceptionally dry spring and a low-snowfall winter. Statewide, the weather pattern has changed enough for the governor to lift the fire ban, which is feared to be harming summer tourism.

“We’re still urging counties to be cautious and not to take unnecessary risks,” Hickenlooper told reporters in Denver on Sunday, according to The Denver Post. “We’re asking citizens to be careful out there, but we’re not in the same place we were three weeks ago and that’s certainly good news.

“ ... We wanted to make sure that the moment we got a change in the weather, the moment Mother Nature began to smile on us again, we wanted to rescind the fire ban and make sure people knew we’re ready, that we were open for business.” Hickenlooper said.

White River National Forest officials plan to meet today to discuss conditions in the forests around the Roaring Fork Valley. In consultation with local sheriffs and fire chiefs, they will examine scientific data, such as moisture content in trees and soils, before considering any easing of the local fire ban, White River National Forest public information officer Bill Kight said. The area is under “Stage II” fire restrictions.

Local officials will also take into account the weather forecast, which calls for the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms today, but warmer and drier weather later in the week.

Ultimately, any decisions about the fire ban rest with White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams and county sheriffs.

Pitkin County first put out a partial fire ban in early April. In late May, in coordination with federal land managers, the ban was strengthened to Phase II, which includes all open flames, including campfires — even those in designated fire pits or grates in developed campsites — and lit charcoal grills. The statewide fire ban was enacted on June 14.

Tanny McGinnis, public information officer with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, said the local fire chiefs and sheriff would like to give a “high five” to the community for its adherence to the fire ban.

“[The community] was phenomenal during the high-risk Fourth of July,” McGinnis said. “People were-self checking and holding others accountable.”

Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy Jesse Steindler echoed the message of thanks to local residents and visitors for their attention to the wildfire danger.

However, he cautioned that conditions are still deceptively dry, despite the recent rainfall. While hiking in spruce, pine and aspen forests around 9,000 feet in elevation Saturday, Steindler said he observed some moisture on the ground, but a few inches below the surface, dry conditions were evident.

Aspen Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven said Sunday that he would not be recommending any easing of the local fire ban until officials could be “absolutely certain” that the moisture content of potential fire fuels had risen.

“We’ve been dumped on the last few days and every little bit helps,” Van Walraven said. However, with another stretch of the dry winds and low humidity that permeated the area for much of June, “we could be right back to square one,” he said.

“That’s the issue: We started with a deficit,” Van Walraven said, referring to the winter’s light snowpack.

While the Roaring Fork Valley has been spared any large-scale wildfires so far this year, the Front Range has had a historically destructive season so far. Fires outside of Fort Collins and Colorado Springs have destroyed hundreds of homes and are responsible for at least three deaths.

Outside of De Beque, west of Rifle, the Pine Ridge fire burned about 14,000 acres since June 27, but officials are reporting nearly full containment of the blaze. However, the area will still be monitored for weeks to come, McGinnis said.