Campfires again allowed in valley campgrounds
A string of dry winters followed by unusually warm weather this summer drove wildfire danger to all-time highs and fueled the state’s largest-ever wildfires.
The strict fire bans enacted in early June to combat that risk in Eagle County and the White River National Forest were eased this weekend – but not eliminated – as temperatures fall with the approach of winter.
“We’ve gotten a little bit of moisture and conditions are moderating a little, but it’s still awfully dry out there. There’s still the potential for fire,” says Eric Rebitzke, a fire manager at the Holy Cross Ranger Station in Minturn.
Heavy rains earlier this month are already giving way to drier conditions after a week or so of dry, sunny weather, says Barry Smith, Eagle County Emergency Manager.
“The fire danger went down and now it’s on its way back up,” Smith says. “But the dangers have lowered enough that we felt we could allow people, within reason, to have fires.”
The valley still needs “a lot” more moisture, Smith says.
“Even a little snow on the ground won’t do it because it won’t last too long,” Smith says. “Early in morning it won’t burn, but later in the day, with a little wind, we could still get a pretty good fire.”
The bans prohibited all open flames in the county and the forest, including campfires. Campers were only allowed to use specific models of gas stoves.
The easing of the bans allows campers to have campfires in fire rings in designated campgrounds on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. Wood stoves with spark arresters –commonly known as sheepherder’s stoves –are also allowed. The use of petroleum-fueled stoves, lanterns and heating devices are also permitted.
Residents planning agricultural burns have to get a permit from their local fire department.
“We’re just about back to normal, but we’re not there yet,” says Vail Fire Chief John Gulick, who lifted the town’s fire ban. “It could turn for the worse again if we get consecutive sunny days.”
Fire officials would be less worried if rains were falling more consistently on the valley, Gulick says.
“Conditions are still dry,” Gulick says. “We’re not getting steady rains but we’ve gotten to point where we can relax a little bit because weather has eased fire danger.”
Burning should be avoided during high winds or a string of dry weather, Gulick says.
“Since we’ll never make up for the lack of moisture that occurred earlier this summer, it’s important to remember that the overall conditions remain very dry,” he says. “Although the restrictions have been lifted, we would encourage the community to be extremely careful.”
Colorado was scorched by its worst-ever fire season this spring and summer. With massive fires raging across the state, Eagle County made it through the summer with only minor charring:
– The Porphyry Fire burned nearly 10 acres on a ridge high above Eagle June 11.
– The Ute Creek Fire burned about 40 acres near the Eagle County Landfill in June.
– A 6-acre fire, allegedly started by a flare gun June 8, burned at a trail head below Mountain Star before being extinguished by firefighters.
– The Chamonix Fire, allegedly set by a drifter July 1, burned a patch of hillside above homes behind Safeway in West Vail.
– The Wildridge Fire burned about 6 acres above lower Metcalf Road, Aug. 2, causing an partial evacuation of the subdivision. It was extinguished before threatening any homes.
There were more than a dozen other smaller fires.
“We’ve actually done pretty well on our side of the forest,” Rebitzke says. “We’ve been able to jump on stuff pretty quick and handle it. But the other side of the forest wasn’t so lucky.”
The eastern side of the White River National Forest, which rings the valley, also made it through the summer relatively unscathed –particularly compared to the west side of the forest, where the massive Coal Seam, Spring Creek and Big Fish fires gobbled up more than a 100,000 acres around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County.
Despite the easing of the fire ban, people have to be careful, says Steve Deitemeyer, acting White River National forest supervisor.
“Twenty-one wildland firefighters across the nation died this year, and more than 10,000 square miles have burned,” Deitemeyer. says “If people forget how dry the woods are, those totals could rise. The drought is not over.”
Summit Daily News reporter Jane Rueter contributed to this report.