Pitkin County officials said last week that a move to Stage 2 fire restrictions would not be far off.
The county, like neighboring counties Eagle and Garfield, as well as the White River National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management, implemented Stage 1 restrictions prior to the Fourth of July weekend.
During a meeting of Pitkin County commissioners last Wednesday, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said he believed area counties and public lands agencies could decide to go into Stage 2 over “the next week to two weeks.”
Emergency officials of several counties and agencies hold a meeting on Tuesdays to discuss dryness levels and the threat of wildfire.
“It is dry out there and the long-range forecast we’re getting [for precipitation] is for more of the same,” DiSalvo said.
That means little or no rain, according to DiSalvo and Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald. However, Weather.com, which derives its forecasts in part with information from the National Weather Service, does call for a 40-50% chance of afternoon thunderstorms or showers in the short term, on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and July 20-21.
DiSalvo said he believes area residents and visitors have been “amazingly compliant” with the Stage 1 restrictions. He said he only heard of a couple of instances of fireworks being blasted locally on the Fourth of July.
“I’ll tell you in advance,” DiSalvo told commissioners, “when we get to Stage 2 that’s when things get a little more unpredictable and people start to become a little more noncompliant then, because the restrictions become significantly greater.”
For now, Stage 1 restrictions are in place and include bans on: building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire except within a developed recreation site or improved site that includes a fire ring or pit; smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building or a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area of at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material; operating or using an internal or external combustion engine without an approved spark-arresting device properly installed, maintained and in effective working order; use of any personal fireworks or explosive requiring fuses or blasting caps, including exploding targets, as defined by state law.
Residents and visitors who violate the fire restrictions face penalties that include fines between $500 and $1,000, as well as possible jail time.
The Stage 2 restrictions typically include a ban on all fires or uses of charcoal grills in all backcountry areas, developed campgrounds, picnic grounds and private property. Fire devices using pressurized liquids or gas with shutoff valves are permitted in certain instances. Smoking is banned, except within an enclosed vehicle, trailer, building or tent.
All explosives requiring fuses or blasting caps, and the use of firearms is prohibited as well. The area was under a Stage 2 fire restriction when the Lake Christine Fire was ignited a little more than two years ago at the Basalt Gun Range.
MacDonald said the data that officials have been monitoring “has been trending in an alarming manner.” Fire chiefs and others look at the energy release components and live fuel moistures in making decisions about fire restrictions. Red flag warnings — which are issued by counties when dry conditions and high winds suggest ideal conditions for fires and wildfires — have been common throughout the Roaring Fork Valley in recent weeks.
“With these conditions, it is really difficult to put a fire out, with the winds,” she said.
The county is making plans to communicate with the public in case the Stage 2 restrictions are enacted. There may be a phone alert, similar to the Amber Alert, that goes out to the cell phones of county residents when the higher level is implemented.
MacDonald suggested that all residents develop an evacuation plan and practice it, because “there will be chaos” if mandatory evacuation orders are issued locally and people have not taken such precautions.
“None of this is difficult if you do it in advance,” she said.