On a day where people in Durango woke up to hazy skies and the smell of smoke, all of Southwest Colorado entered the first stage of fire restrictions as a result of high fire danger across the region.
As of Tuesday, all lands in La Plata County – federal, tribal and county-managed – are in a Stage 1 fire restrictions, which holds a set of bans and provisions aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires breaking out.
Restrictions are also in place for Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan counties.
Richard Bustamante, fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest, said lack of precipitation over the winter has ushered in fire season more than a month early in Southwest Colorado.
Fire season usually begins in June, just before monsoons arrive in July, Bustamante said. But high and low elevations around Durango and the San Juan Mountains are already at high risk for fire.
Bustamante said fire departments across the region have been responding to multiple fires a day since April 1.
He compared the conditions this year to 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire, and 2012, the year of the West Fork Fire near Wolf Creek Pass.
“We’re setting records, and not in a good way,” Bustamante said.
Butch Knowlton, director of emergency management for La Plata County, said La Plata County was 6.8 inches of precipitation below average for 2017. That trend didn’t stop in 2018: The region is 3.12 inches below average so far this year.
“We are dry,” Knowlton said. “All the right ingredients have come together.”
Though the fire restrictions are expected to help reduce the risk of wildfire, the provisions don’t address one of the main issues: open burns on agricultural lands that go out of control.
Because of state exemptions, it would take an order from the Colorado governor to ban burning on agricultural lands. Yet, it’s exactly that issue that has plagued local fire departments.
Tom Aurnhammer, fire chief for the Los Pinos Fire Protection District, said an ag burn recently went from 5 to 50 acres in less than 30 minutes near the La Plata-Archuleta county line.
Another burn, south of Durango, went out of control and threatened four structures. A helicopter was called to assist with that fire.
“I’m seeing some stuff I’m very nervous about,” Aurnhammer said. “I’m seeing fire behavior this time of year I’m not expecting.”
Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty said since local entities have no authority to ban fires on agricultural land, the best step moving forward to prevent a fire outbreak is education.
“If we’re going to keep from having a large fire in La Plata County this year, all of us need to make a commitment to do things different and be more safe,” Doughty said. “None of us want a fire to get out of control.”
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said that officers will be on high alert for people not complying with the fire ban. But he said the department would rather people be smart about preventing fire than write tickets.
“This year is significantly different than most years,” Smith said. “We can’t afford to light La Plata County on fire.”
The Forest Service’s Bustamante said firefighting resources are gearing up in Southwest Colorado in case of a fire.
Local fire districts have been coordinating, which helps save money by not having to bring in firefighters from other areas. Hot-shot crews are also available for the next month or so. And other resources, like aircraft, are available.
All fire officials agreed it’s likely the region will have to enter a more restrictive Stage 2 fire restriction if conditions persist.