Vail Valley seeing ‘too many’ unattended campfires right now
Strong winds can quickly whip up a big fire from the embers of an unattended campfire
- With Eagle County in Stage 1 fire restrictions, campfires are banned anywhere but established campgrounds. Basically, if you pay to camp, you can have a fire.
- Under Stage 2 fire restrictions, campfires are banned even in developed campgrounds.
- The exception is for propane-fueled devices with shutoff valves.
A smoldering stump Sunday drew crews from three local fire agencies up Tigiwon Road outside of Minturn. That fire was quickly snuffed.
The large response was due, in part, to the winds that have been swirling for weeks throughout the valley. Wind, along with dry conditions, can quickly turn a few smoldering embers into a large, dangerous fire.
That small fire was one of several unattended campfires reported around Eagle County over the past few weeks.
Paul Cada is the Vail Fire Department’s wildland fire specialist. Cada said the number of unattended fires reported around the area is about normal for a summer. Still, he said, that’s too many.
“There shouldn’t be any,” Cada said.
“There’s still a lot of education going on,” Cada said. “At this point, nobody should be having fires out in the woods.”
Paul Abling, the marketing and communications director for Walking Mountains Science Center, on Sunday, posted to the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook page calling out a mess he encountered during a bike ride in Gypsum. After finishing his ride, Abling said he went back up the trail to collect cans and other trash and encountered a still-burning fire.
Wrote Abling, in a post that led to 153 comments:
“Not only did these hard core White Claw drinking punks leave all their trash (which I picked up) but they also did not put out their fire! This is the third fire so far this season within Gypsum, Colorado that I have personally extinguished. I really want to have hope that we as a community can raise our kids to respect this place but I am constantly disappointed. Who are these kids that they’re allowed to stay out all night, can afford multiple cases of booze, and have ZERO respect or regard for the land around us? Seriously, who are their parents?!”
Few fires allowed
Eagle County is currently under Stage 1 fire restrictions. On public lands, a Stage 1 fire restriction means fires are banned outside of developed campgrounds. In short, if you’ve paid to camp, you can have a fire.
That changes under Stage 2 restrictions, which bans even those fires in campgrounds. The only fires allowed are from gas-fueled devices with a shutoff valve.
Don’t be surprised if Stage 2 restrictions are imposed soon, perhaps as soon as Tuesday’s weekly call among area fire officials.
Tracy LeClair is the education and public information officer for the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District. That district covers most of the eastern part of the county, from Tennessee Pass to Wolcott, with the exception of Vail.
LeClair said that local vegetation right now has a very high “energy release component” — essentially how dry vegetation is and how hot and quickly it will burn.
LeClair said the current energy release component is in the 97th percentile in much of Eagle County right now. Anything over the 90th percentile prompts going into some form of fire restriction.
The volatility of fuels is driven in large part by weather conditions. Hot, dry, windy conditions mean wildfires are more likely.
Wind is particularly dangerous. And more common.
“It just seems like there’s more wind these days than even 10 years ago,” Gypsum Fire Protection District Chief Justin Kirkland said. Kirkland added that there’s been a delay in the annual monsoonal flow, which generally brings rainfall to the valley.
Like 2018 again?
At this point, LeClair said it seems like conditions rival those of 2018, when a severe drought worsened many local wildfires.
Given current conditions, the potential is growing for quickly-growing fires.
The good news is that “We’re looking good resource-wise” for air support, LeClair said. But, she added, it takes a lot of resources, and a lot of money, once a fire starts.
But it’s hard to keep a watchful eye on tens of thousands of acres of public land in Eagle County.
“We have to rely on people doing the right thing, and it seems like people aren’t getting the message,” LeClair said.
If you end up being found responsible for starting a wildfire, you can be held criminally liable for the costs of fighting that fire, as well as the cost of any property losses.
Richard Miller and Allison Marcus were convicted for their role in starting the 2018 Lake Christine Fire in the Basalt area. Both were sentenced to 45 days in jail, 1,500 hours of useful community service, $100,000 in restitution and five years of probation.
If either hasn’t fully paid restitution at the end of the five years of probation, prosecutors could seek an an extension of that probation.
Marcia Gilles of the White River National Forest said people need to check on local fire restrictions before heading into the backcountry.
And, she added, “there are good alternatives to campfires.” If someone doesn’t have a propane-fueled campfire, Gilles said another alternative is just looking at the night sky.
“There are some gorgeous stars right now,” she said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com.
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The tragic incident left a nearby camper wondering if more could be done to remove dead-standing trees from popular camping areas.