Lachelt: Keeping our community safe in fire season

Friday, May 4, 2018 8:09 PM
Gwen Lachelt

The last month has done little to change the moisture levels in Southwest Colorado – at least not for the better.

Combined with low humidity, hot, dry winds, relatively little rainfall, and above-average temperatures, the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions on Tuesday for all unincorporated lands throughout the county.

We did this in conjunction with partner agencies, including the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, the fire chiefs in the county, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, all of which have issued similar fire restrictions for their jurisdictions. Given what are now being called “exceptional drought” conditions, we are all coordinating to keep our community safe in the fire season ahead.

The fire restrictions prohibit open burning, burn barrels and agricultural burning on private property in the unincorporated private land areas of La Plata County. The use of campfires, coal or wood-burning stove, any type of charcoal grill or open fire in any undeveloped area is prohibited.

The fire restrictions do not include charcoal fires in suitable containers or gas grills for barbecues at private residences or fires within designated campground pits with protective grates; however, residents and visitors must not leave these fires unattended and must carefully and fully extinguish them after use.

The Stage 1 fire restrictions also include:

Smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings, developed recreational areas and 3-foot-wide areas cleared of vegetation.Fireworks are prohibited.Use of explosive material is prohibited.Use of any internal combustion engine is prohibited unless it is equipped with an approved and functioning spark-arresting device.Welding and cutting operations must be conducted with a 20-foot radius safe zone free of vegetation with a 2.5 gallon pressurized fire extinguisher or 5-pound ABC extinguisher or pressurized water supply and proper hand tools on site with a fire watch individual standing by continuously.Flaring for production wells may be allowed with approval from the designated fire chief.To reinforce La Plata County’s commitment to fire prevention and mitigation, we have been taking a proactive approach in an area of shared concern: the county-owned land west of the Durango city limits where homeless campers have congregated over the past several years. These mitigation and prevention measures include relocating campers out of the wooded areas and onto a bench area approximately 200 yards north and east of the current site.

This county-owned bench area is clear of vegetation thanks to assistance from county and volunteer crews from FireWise of Southwest Colorado, Crisis Response International and campers in the area who have conducted extensive fire mitigation on the new location. It will serve as a temporary campsite to address fire and public safety concerns while the city of Durango establishes a sheltering option for homeless members of the community.

In addition to addressing fire concerns, the bench site offers accessibility for first responders and service providers for trash pick-up and portable toilets, reduces the camp footprint and provides law enforcement improved access to patrol the area.

We have begun moving campers out of the wooded area, providing a check-in team consisting of the camp host, Sheriff’s Office representatives and Axis Health System staff to assign campers spots on the bench, inform them of the camp rules and connect people to available services. While people are not required to move to the bench location, the wooded area will no longer be available for camping. The fire risk is simply too high to allow for that to continue as we enter the fire season. However, we believe that the vegetation-free bench area provides an appropriate staging site to prepare campers to vacate the county-owned land when the city of Durango’s sheltering option is up and running.

We are all committed to addressing the very real fire concern that “exceptional drought” conditions have brought about in Southwest Colorado and are taking every precaution to prevent and avoid wildfire this spring and summer. Our coordinated team of agencies will continue to monitor conditions and respond accordingly as the days lengthen.

To keep us all safe and informed as fire season ramps up, remember that La Plata County also offers emergency notifications via CodeRED: Once you sign up for these announcements, you will receive real-time information on your cellphone about all emergencies, including wildfire and information about evacuations, pre-evacuation and other essential emergency information.

Gwen Lachelt is chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at 382-6219.