Eagle County to ease back to Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday, Aug. 31 | VailDaily.com

Eagle County to ease back to Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday, Aug. 31

Suspects are still being sought in June's Bocco Fire north and west of Wolcott. While it remains very dry, area fire officials have decided to ease Eagle County's fire restrictions to less-strict Stage 1. That allows campfires in designated campgrounds.
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What’s restricted?

Here’s what’s included in Stage 1 fire restrctions:

• Campfires are allowed only in designated fire grates in developed campgrounds.

• No fires of any type are allowed outside of developed areas.

• No smoking, except in an enclosed vehicle or building, on hard surfaces or in areas cleared of vegetation.

• No use of explosive materials, including explosive targets.

• No welding except in areas cleared of vegetation.

• No use of internal combustion engines without working spark arresters.

For more information, go to the website of the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit.

Source: Eagle County Sheriff’s Office

EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County will ease back to Stage 1 fire restrictions as of 12:01 a.m. Friday, Aug. 31. But it’s still really dry.

Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek, the county’s lead fire official, said the decision to ease away from the current, more restrictive Stage 2 fire restrictions was made during the weekly conference call among fire officials throughout the Upper Colorado River watershed.

The current restrictions ban virtually all outdoor burning — or just about anything that will create a spark — on private and public lands throughout Eagle County.

Going back to Stage 1 restrictions at the start of the Labor Day holiday weekend means campers in established campgrounds will be able to have campfires, but only in designated fire rings. Campfires are still banned for campers outside designated campgrounds.

Construction work such as welding will also be allowed, with certain precautions. Outdoor smoking will also be allowed, but only on either hard surfaces or in areas cleared of vegetation.

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In a telephone interview, van Beek said the decision was made thanks to improving conditions throughout the county. There’s been some good rain lately. Cooler nights have led to dewy mornings, which helps keep moisture in vegetation.

Still, the National Weather Service in Grand Junction on Monday, Aug. 27, issued a fire weather alert for the area, due to very low humidity and strong winds. That warning was canceled the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 28.

‘Use common sense’

While the fire restrictions are easing, van Beek added that it’s still very dry. Lightning earlier this week sparked a small fire just east of Eagle.

“We’re happy to be able to (ease the restrictions),” van Beek said. “But people need to use common sense — resources are still stretched extremely thin around the region.”

Fire restrictions aren’t imposed lightly, particularly in areas popular with summer visitors. Stage 1 restrictions were first imposed in early June, as a dry spring turned into a dry summer, and following several minor fires.

Later in June, more strict Stage 2 restrictions were imposed. Fourth of July fireworks shows were canceled as a result.

Despite the restrictions, Eagle County still saw human-caused wildfires.

People shooting at explosive targets are believed to have sparked the 415-acre Booco fire north of Wolcott on Saturday, June 9. Police are still searching for those suspects.

Another shooting-range incident, this time with people using “tracer” rounds that burn as they fly through the air, was the cause of the Lake Christine fire near Basalt.

While that fire continues to burn in remote areas, the blaze threatened hundreds of homes, consumed 13,000-plus acres and has cost more than $13 million to fight — so far.

Two suspects have been charged with setting that fire.

It’s still very dry

At the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District, community risk manager Tracy LeClair said easing the restrictions may make fire officials’ jobs a little easier, given that there’s far less prohibited now. And, with hunting season coming and the Labor Day holiday weekend, there will be plenty of people out in the forests.

“But our message still is that it’s very dry,” LeClair said. “Just because we’ve (eased fire restrictions) doesn’t mean we’ll be any less vigilant.”

LeClair noted that higher-elevation areas have seen more recent moisture, but grasses at lower elevations remain tinder-dry.

Then there’s the wind, which has been active all summer. Whether fires are human-caused or lightning-sparked, LeClair said wind is the biggest factor determining how quickly a fire will spread. Lower-than-expected winds were a main factor in the National Weather Service calling off the fire weather warning on Tuesday afternoon.

While areas near the valley floor get the most attention, the Eagle Holy Cross Ranger District has by far the largest land area — roughly 704,000 acres.

District Ranger Aaron Mayville said part of the reason for delaying the easing of fire restrictions is the amount of education work his staff has in store the next couple of days.

Mayville said signs about the fire restrictions have to be posted at every trailhead, campground and information kiosk around the district.

Then there’s the need to talk to people who are out in the forest, both now and through the weekend and the coming big-game hunting seasons.

The Forest Service has fire severity patrols — people who have to be out in the forest, looking for both campers and campfires.

One of the biggest challenges comes in the Flat Tops area of the forest — roughly to the west of the Colorado River Road. Mayville said there are more than 500 known dispersed camping sites — sites suitable for camping, but not in developed campgrounds — in that area. Campfires are still banned in those dispersed camping areas, popular with many hunters.

Mayville said getting out the word to as many people are possible will be essential.

“One of the worries is that when you go from Stage 2 to Stage 1, people say, ‘There’s no more fire ban,’” Mayville said.

That’s not the case, of course.

And, he added, while easing the fire restrictions was the right step to take, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

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