During a work session Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo discussed steps designed to keep the community safer from potential fire dangers.
Commissioners generally agreed with DiSalvo’s call for a ban on all fireworks in unincorporated sections of the county through October. County staff will draft an ordinance imposing the ban, but it likely will contain provisions that could allow for the restriction to be lifted — upon a recommendation from the sheriff — under certain conditions, including long stretches of wet weather.
Second, commissioners agreed with DiSalvo that the process of implementing fire restrictions during periods of drought or extreme dryness should be more formalized. As the county’s official fire warden, DiSalvo already has the authority to initiate various stages of fire restrictions not only in unincorporated sections of the county but within its three fire districts covering Aspen, Snowmass and Basalt. Under the change to the current system, DiSalvo would be required to notify commissioners that he is implementing restrictions, affording them an opportunity to meet and discuss the reasons behind his actions, albeit after the fact.
Though moisture currently abounds thanks to the winter snowpack and a rainy spring— Commissioner Patti Clapper got a phone alert during the meeting about the expected arrival of a new storm watch for the Elk Mountain Range — officials have noted that conditions can change rapidly between late spring and mid-summer.
“Colorado, New Mexico, parts of California [and other parts of the West] are probably the most fire-prone states in the United States, and I think we need to be proactive,” DiSalvo said. “They are the hot fire states. It doesn’t take much for fires to get out of control.”
DiSalvo said he began thinking about a fireworks ban earlier this year when he was in the midvalley area viewing the Lake Christine Fire burn scar. He also began thinking about the numerous wildfires that plagued the state and other parts of the West last summer.
“I thought, ‘Why do we do fireworks at all?’ Especially after the tragedies that we have seen in this state. Why do we play with fire?” he asked.
He first brought the idea to business leaders and commissioners in late March with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show in mind. Last month, ACRA announced it would not hold a fireworks show — the event draws thousands of locals and visitors to the downtown area — on the upcoming holiday. Instead, there will be a drone-laser event.
The decision, the business organization said, had more to do with the availability of the drone-laser show, which was to have been held on last year’s Fourth of July celebration amid the extreme drought. However, that event was canceled due to high winds.
ACRA said recently that it decided last fall to carry the drone-laser show contract forward for the 2019 Fourth of July celebration, according to a representative of the business group.
DiSalvo said the Lake Christine Fire near Basalt, which was started by illegal firing of tracer rounds at the local gun range, continues to be on the collective mind of the community. The fire scorched more than 12,000 acres of backcountry land and destroyed three homes.
During Tuesday’s meeting, County Manager Jon Peacock brought up points ACRA made in a letter to commissioners. The organization stated that it was not opposed to a summer fireworks ban as long as the decision is made annually, with the possibility of lifting the ban during periods when scientific data indicates a lack of dryness in the area’s natural fuels.
However, ACRA also asked that annual decisions on fireworks ban be made each March, several months before the Fourth of July holiday.
“If ACRA wants to hold our feet to the fire in March based on [scientific] evidence, I’d have to say no,” DiSalvo told commissioners, pointing out that conditions in March are less than likely to mirror conditions in early summer.
Commissioner George Newman echoed the sentiment, saying that while ACRA’s input was welcome, “Our concerns go far beyond the business community of Aspen.”
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson also attended the meeting to voice support for the fireworks ban. He said even with a week of wet weather throughout the valley in the spring, summer and fall, natural fuels could reach extremely dry levels within a matter of days.
Both Thompson and DiSalvo pointed out that massive wildfires and human-caused blazes can be sparked not only in the summer months but just about any time of year. Thompson said data from the last 20 years indicates that conditions have become increasingly drier during the non-winter months than previously.
“This is the new normal,” DiSalvo said.
Commissioner Steve Child said aside from the fire potential, fireworks should be banned because of the effect of noise on wildlife and household pets. Animals are easily spooked by the loud explosions.
“The community should really try to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish with a fireworks display,” he said.
County officials said the potential for a summer fireworks ban was made easier by recent state legislation that provides commissioners with increased authority to restrict the use of fireworks between May 31 and July 5 of any year. The decision, however, has to be made annually and cannot stand in perpetuity.