La Plata County is refining the way it implements fire restrictions after the 416 Fire last year brought a big learning moment to the community.
Last year, extreme drought plagued Southwest Colorado, causing all of La Plata County to enter the first stage of fire restrictions May 1, 2018, which banned things like open burning, campfires and charcoal grills.
On June 1, 2018, La Plata County, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, implemented Stage 2 fire restrictions. That day, however, a small spark climbed up a hillside north of Durango and went on to burn an estimated 54,000 acres.
Almost a year later, the Forest Service has not named an official cause of the 416 Fire, though many residents speculate a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train started the blaze based on witness accounts.
Then, on June 12, 2018, as the fire raged and with no precipitation in the forecast, La Plata County enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions, the most stringent category of rules the county has the authority to put in place to reduce the risk of wildfire.
About that time, for the first time ever, the Forest Service closed the San Juan National Forest.
But on June 21, the fire restriction process was tested when local fire chiefs recommended to La Plata County commissioners (who have sole authority over restrictions) to downgrade to Stage 2. At the time, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management also had downgraded.
Commissioners, however, felt it was too soon based on weather conditions and fire danger to ease restrictions and decided to remain in Stage 3. The region had received about an inch of rain, though fire experts said the area was still in high, critical fire danger.
“The community’s concern about fire risk was a factor (in the vote), but weather trends were (also) headed in the wrong direction,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “I remember that was a big thing for me.”
But fire chiefs said the list of criteria that justifies restriction levels called for the downgrade to Stage 2.
Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said decisions to enter fire restrictions are not a light task. They can shut down industries and have major financial impacts. At the same time, there’s a responsibility to public safety.
“It can be a very emotional plea when there’s a big active fire,” he said. “So we want to make this as easy and as objective so we can make a good, science-based decision.”
Doughty said local fire departments have, for the most part, adopted fire restrictions based on their federal partners, and that doesn’t always translate at the county level.
“We’re trying to just do a better job of cleanly identifying when we go to different levels of restrictions, what those restrictions include,” he said. “We had plenty of problems and issues with the 416 Fire, and there was no need to make it harder with decisions about fire restrictions.”
The refining process is in progress, Doughty said.
He said contemplating restrictions regarding the D&SNG is also a part of the conversation. La Plata County’s Stage 3 fire restrictions do not allow the use of coal-fired steam engines.
“We’ve talked about how fire restrictions apply to them,” Doughty said. “The plan is they will be included in the conversation, we’re just not there yet.”