As visitors flock to Southwest Colorado for this year’s Fourth of July celebration, local agencies are ramping up efforts to warn out-of-town guests about the unprecedented fire danger and associated fire restrictions.
“We want everybody to enjoy themselves, but at the same time, we don’t take fires lightly,” said Chris Burke, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
Since May, communities in Southwest Colorado have enacted various levels of fire restrictions, which vary on a scale of 1 to 3, in an effort to prevent wildfires.
While the different stages carry a host of restrictions, the main sticking points are no campfires, no fireworks, no charcoal grills and no smoking outside.
Generally, the public has complied with these fire restrictions since they went into effect, according to several local agencies.
But with the arrival of visitors, an increased risk of a fire outbreak exists as a result of some people who may not be aware of the risks.
“People have been doing a great job, and we’ve had very few, if any, problems,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest. “But there’s a lot of visitors this time of year, and people don’t necessarily know our drought situation.”
As a result, local agencies are working to get the message out.
Fitzgerald said Forest Service employees are sweeping local trails and roads, talking to anyone they encounter about what’s allowed and what’s prohibited in the forest.
“We have our own staff out on patrol, being more involved and talking to the public,” she said. “We’re working as hard as we can to keep from having another fire start.”
Bruce Evans, chief of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District that covers areas around Vallecito Reservoir, reiterated that people have been proactive and have followed the fire restrictions.
The biggest risk now for fire outbreak, Evans said, are people renting vacation homes.
On Sunday night, for instance, the fire department was called out to a vacation home where the renters had an open fire in the backyard. A neighbor reported the fire, Evans said.
The problem is that property owners (many of whom are absentee owners) of vacation rentals through sites like AirBnB may not relay to their renters information about the fire danger and restrictions, Evans said.
“All the locals have gotten the message,” he said. “And they’re calling on people right away. There’s a militia mentality. Everybody’s super vigilant over folks that are visiting and calling right away on people violating the burn ban.”
Burke said the Sheriff’s Office is sending out public service announcements to local media and placing electronic road signs along major roadways.
On Fourth of July, the Sheriff’s Office will increase the number of officers on patrol to 10 deputies. On a regular weekday, about five deputies are on duty.
“As dry as it is, and with the other fires in the state, we don’t want to take any chances whatsoever,” he said.
Humans start about 90 percent of wildfires, a result of campfires left unattended, discarded cigarettes, the burning of debris and sometimes intentional arson, according to federal data.
Currently, the San Juan National Forest and any Bureau of Land Management lands in La Plata County are under Stage 2 restrictions. La Plata County-owned property is under Stage 3 fire restrictions.
From June 12 to June 21, the entire San Juan National Forest was closed because of the risk people posed to start a new fire while two active fires – the 416 and Burro – burned on national forest land north and northwest of Durango, respectively.
The reopening of the forest, as justified by the U.S. Forest Service, was based on one weekend of rain and a prediction that monsoons would arrive before extreme fire conditions returned.
But the two active fires continue to grow with little new containment, and weather conditions have continued to bring about high danger, with several red flag warning days and no moisture.
Fitzgerald said there is no plan to close the forest again, but “it’s always possible,” especially if people start violating the fire restrictions.
According to the Forest Service, violating Stage 2 fire restrictions carries a mandatory appearance in federal court and is punishable as a Class B misdemeanor, which means a fine of up to $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment of up to six months, or both. A federal court judge determines fines and punishments.