Spring has sprung, and thoughts are turning to the types of outdoor activities that folks in the upper Roaring Fork Valley and elsewhere enjoyed before there was a statewide drought, fire restrictions and a human-ignited blaze that lit up the midvalley countryside.
Addressing any potential confusion that may have carried over from last year’s dry and fiery summer, officials confirmed Monday that it’s OK to build a campfire or light a barbecue pit in Pitkin County — for now.
“There are no fire restrictions in place,” said Valerie MacDonald, emergency manager for Pitkin County.
Steady rains early this week and the large amount of snowpack left over from the winter might make the idea of a wildfire or human-caused blaze seem ludicrous.
But, as MacDonald noted, conditions often change quickly this time of year, once temperatures increase and drier weather moves in. Plus, the state already has recorded its first wildfire of the season: a minor incident in Summit County that reportedly occurred on April 20, after wind lifted embers from an authorized pile burn and carried them to nearby ranchland brush.
MacDonald said the most pressing concern among area emergency officials is the burn scar from the Lake Christine Fire near Basalt. Because of the lack of vegetation on charred sections of Basalt Mountain and elsewhere in the midvalley, the potential for flash flooding and debris flow is high, she said, adding that those dangers will exist for the next few years.
“Every spring, we’re either dealing with mud and flood, or fire, or both, at different times,” she said.
Still, the risk of fire is on the mind of Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. He said although there presently is no major fire danger, he still plans to discuss a June-to-October fireworks ban with Pitkin County commissioners during a work session on Tuesday morning.
In late March, DiSalvo brought up the idea of a fireworks ban at separate meetings of business leaders and commissioners. His main concern was the Fourth of July fireworks show on Aspen Mountain, an event sponsored by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association that draws thousands of locals and visitors to the downtown area.
ACRA has since decided to replace this year’s fireworks extravaganza with a laser show that relies on drone technology, though that decision had nothing to do with fire danger. But DiSalvo noted that as the county’s fire warden, he typically gets permit requests each year from other entities for smaller, shorter fireworks shows, which also would be subject to a potential ban.
He said he is open to any measure that would bring added wildfire protection to the community. The county could ban fireworks outright for five months, or it could make a moratorium on such activities contingent upon scientific evidence of overly dry natural fuels in the area, using what’s known as Energy Release Component data.
“In layman’s terms, ERC data tells you how long a piece of wood would burn for,” DiSalvo said.
He described Colorado as a “red-hot state” prone to wildfires each summer, and said he hopes no one has forgotten the Lake Christine Fire, which was sparked during a Stage II fire restriction, and others that raged across the West last year.
“The Lake Christine Fire was basically caused by a firework that came out of the end of a rifle barrel,” the sheriff said of the tracer round that authorities believe ignited the fire at the Basalt shooting range on July 3.
The blaze scorched over 12,500 acres and destroyed three homes before it was fully contained in late summer. Two individuals who were using the range when the fire started have been charged with felony arson; their trials are scheduled for late May and June in Eagle County District Court.
“I hope everyone remembers how scared we all were last July,” DiSalvo said. “Why even tempt fate with something that we do, more or less, for recreational purposes, especially when there are other things to do like drone displays and laser lights and things like that.”
DiSalvo said state law requires that a fireworks ban can only be instituted by a county one year at a time. He said there are no pending requests for private fireworks displays, such as ones that sometimes are held near North Star Nature Preserve or Snowmass Creek.
“Those permit requests aren’t going to get very far anymore,” he said.
Despite the lack of requests for fireworks displays, DiSalvo said he would still like to see some type of safeguard set into place this year.
“To me, the benefits of these activities don’t outweigh the risks,” he said.
Speaking to the wider issue of a small-scale fire ban, MacDonald pointed out that the county’s public safety council meets nearly every week during the warm and dry months to evaluate ERC data and other conditions that could lead to fire restrictions.
The council consists of MacDonald, DiSalvo, the chiefs of four local fire-protection districts and officials with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
“We don’t make decisions in a vacuum,” MacDonald said. “We talk to all of our partners and make decisions collectively, based on science.”
DiSalvo echoed that point, saying that members of the public safety council are typically on the same page when it comes to implementing fire restrictions.
MacDonald added that conditions aren’t expected to become hot and dry anytime soon. The National Weather Service predicts a wetter- and cooler-than-normal first half of May.