Colorado’s fire chiefs have asked Gov. Jared Polis to ban all open fires statewide for a period of six months as a matter of safety for the public as well as firefighters amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty said the coalition of fire chiefs sent the letter to Polis earlier this week. The request also included a condition that local jurisdictions could still allow some “critical ag burns,” such as a rancher needing to burn and clear ditches before water is released.
“We don’t want them to lose production because their ditches didn’t get burned out,” Doughty said. “So we’re trying to put that control with local jurisdictions so they can manage that.”
Charly Minkler, president of the La Plata County Farm Bureau, said clearing ditches is an important part of ranching to get full water allocations. Many times, he said, those fires get out of control because there aren’t enough people on hand to help contain the blaze when it starts to get away.
“You do have to be super careful,” Minkler said. “So I can see the interest in not letting people burn for safety reasons.”
While counties and municipalities can enforce fire restrictions, only the governor has the authority to shut down agricultural burns. But fire chiefs are seeking important safety measures, Doughty said.
One would be reducing the risk of a controlled fire escaping and turning into a larger fire that would require a large-scale emergency response, putting firefighters and first responders at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, for instance, two ag burns got out of control when the wind kicked up in the afternoon, requiring an emergency response, Doughty said.
“Ag burns always end up being an issue for us,” he said. “It’s really hard to balance the need of ag producers and still pay attention to fire safety.”
As another benefit, the fire ban would help improve air quality at a time when a virus is spreading that attacks the respiratory system, he said.
Doughty, however, was not in favor of the request sent to Polis, mainly because of the length of the ban – six months – which would mean the public could not have campfires over the summer.
A request for comment from the Governor’s Office was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.
Already, fire restrictions have been ordered amid the coronavirus outbreak.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service announced a complete fire ban across 24 national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, including the San Juan National Forest. No date was listed that indicated when the ban might be lifted.
On Wednesday, Boulder County issued Stage 1 fire restrictions.
La Plata County commissioners earlier this week expressed support for fire restrictions, but had not decided as of Thursday whether they would implement fire restrictions.
Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said she has received complaints from residents about controlled burns. One person, she said, was recovering from COVID-19 and was subject to smoke from a burn, intensifying their illness.
“Even though it’s that time of year (for controlled burns),” Lachelt said, “this year it’s not, for public health and respiratory reasons.”
Long term, it’s unclear what it would mean for the public if the Forest Service lifted its fire restrictions, with Polis’ possible order lasting well into the summer.
A spokeswoman with the Forest Service said, “It would be inappropriate to speculate on any potential future state fire restrictions or bans. USDA Forest Service officials are monitoring the situation and will consider making adjustments to restrictions based on conversations with our federal, state and local government partners.”
Doughty, for his part, said that would pose a tricky legal situation.
“It’s a great question, and I don’t know what the answer to that is,” he said.