San Juan National Forest fire officials are shaking their heads. They’re thinking: You’re not listening, folks.
Forest fuels are extremely dry, yet 22 abandoned or unattended campfires have been found this season, six of them during Memorial Day weekend. The majority of them still had open flames or smouldering embers.
Unattended means no one is around, but there is a tent or vehicle nearby. Abandoned means people are nowhere to be seen, and there is no evidence of their presence.
Last weekend’s fires were not confined geographically. Two abandoned or unattended fires each were found on Missionary Ridge and along East Fork Road near Pagosa Springs. One fire was in the vicinity of Little Bauer Reservoir near Mancos and the other on county property in the Haycamp area near Dolores.
The U.S. Forest Service has dealt with six other fires. Four were lightning strikes. One of the others was near a power line, the second near a train track.
“The majority of these fires were abandoned,” said Chris Tipton, fire-management officer in the Columbine Ranger District.
The fires were reported by alert members of the public or forestry employees on patrol. None of the culprits has been identified, he said.
“We’re in a red-flag period (extreme fire conditions because of dryness, low humidity and wind),” Tipton said. “The lack of solid winter weather and continued dry conditions have made this an above-average fire season.”
There was less snow than usual last winter in the southern San Juan Mountains, which meant less runoff. As a consequence, reservoirs are far from full. A dry, warm 2012 adds to low forest fuel moisture.
Campers frequently build campfires on top of tree needles, Tipton said. Needles don’t produce a lot of smoke, but fire can creep, and if a wind comes up, it can be off to the races, he said.
Campfires should be built on bare earth, Tipton said. Don’t be lulled by green grass – a slight retardant now but which will be gone in a month, he said.
If a campfire is to be left even for a few minutes, it should be doused. Water should be poured on the coals and stirred until there is no smoke and the ashes are cool to the touch.
Anyone who sees what appears to be an abandoned or unattended campfire should alert authorities at (970) 385-1324.
A person who leaves a fire unattended can receive a citation, Tipton said. If someone appears to be abandoning a campfire, the reporting party should have a description of the perpetrator and a description of a vehicle and a license-plate number.