Fire bans will be strictly enforced |

Fire bans will be strictly enforced

Matt Zalaznick

Private fireworks and open fires are prohibited under a fire ban imposed countywide Friday by Eagle County Sheriff A.J. Johnson. But both had been banned under fire restrictions that had been in effect since the beginning of May.

Backyard barbecues –charcoal or gas –are still allowed, but Johnson warned residents to be extra careful when grilling.

“We urge anybody that’s using any kind of barbecue apparatus to have water or a fire extinguisher nearby, just to protect their neighborhood,” Johnson said. “Anybody that starts a fire right now is going to look pretty ignorant and their excuses are going to sound pretty lame. Plus they’re going to have a lot of liability issues.”

Some valley residents have said they have decided to stop barbecuing at their homes until some steady rain starts falling – something that hasn’t happened in weeks.

Colorado is enduring its worst drought in recorded history, and that has left the wildlands ripe for wildfires. The wildfires raging throughout the state in June, still spring on the calendar, only show the potential for more destructive blazes through summer if the rains don’t come.

Because of the already extreme fire risk, there’s not a lot of room for leniency in enforcing the bans this summer, Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said.

“In the past, we may have just confiscated fireworks from someone,” Henninger said. “This year, they’ll get a summons and have to appear in court.”

A firework gone awry could be disastrous for an entire town. Henninger warned all residents, particularly parents, to be vigilant and make sure that doesn’t happen.

“One bottle rocket on somebody’s roof could cause the entire town to go up,” Henninger said. “We’re talking about all of our livelihoods and the things we all came here for. It would take a long time to regrow and it wouldn’t happen in our lifetimes.”

Henninger also recommended that people having barbecues clear the ground around the grill and make sure there aren’t any overhanging tree branches that could catch fire.

“In a normal wet year, this would not be as much of a risk. But this year, any little ember can start something,” Henninger said.

Campfires and other open fires are banned in the White River National Forest. Only propane stoves and heaters are permitted as long as the device meets the “fire underwriters specifications for safety,” said Sue Froeschle, a spokeswoman for the White River National Forest.

“I’ve been asked how do you know if a grill meets specifications,” she said. “You know when you start a forest fire and we come and check the grill.

“You can look at the box, but it’s your responsibility to know. If you don’t know, you’re better off not using it because you can be held responsible for starting a forest fire.”

Karl Mendonca, of the White River’s Holy Cross Ranger District, said the forest will depend on its officers, along with campers and hikers, to enforce the restrictions.

“Most people want to do the right thing if they know what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. For this large portion, it’s just a matter of education,” Mendonca said. “Unfortunately, it’s just a small handful that won’t cooperate.”

Forest Service officials will put up signs at campgrounds and trailheads notifying people of the fire restrictions, he said.

“With severe fire danger, we’re looking for assistance,” Mendonca said. “Ideally, if situation warrants it, a courteous reminder to a person from another camper may be appropriate. But in some situations a person may not feel safe approaching a group, and then law enforcement should be notified.”

Cigarettes can also be a major hazard. Smoking is already prohibited in the national forest, except in building and cars, and state troopers will be on the lookout for drivers flicking cigarettes out of car windows.

“We urge all Coloradoans to take two seconds to act responsibly and to not add to our current problems by carelessly tossing cigarette butts or anything else from their vehicles,” said Col. Lonnie Westphal, chief of the Colorado State Patrol.

There are several laws against littering on the highway or throwing anything that’s burning out a car window onto the highway, Westphal said.

Johnson said firefighters are stretched thin across the state battling wildfires. A major wildfire in Eagle County would stretch them even more.

“In conditions where so many resources are being utilized, if we had a fire of any size, it would be hard to draw the resources,” Johnson said.

Deputies will be looking for people lighting fireworks and setting open fires, including bonfires, Johnson said.

“Right now we’re in a critical situation and we’ll be out looking for it,” Johnson said.

Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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