Fire danger heats up early this year

Governor suspends prescribed burns

Dave Johnson, a firefighter with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, sprays foam over burned ground along County Road 203 on Wednesday morning in Hermosa after a small controlled burn got out of hand. No structures were threatened. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Dave Johnson, a firefighter with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, sprays foam over burned ground along County Road 203 on Wednesday morning in Hermosa after a small controlled burn got out of hand. No structures were threatened.

Fire season has arrived early this year in Southwest Colorado.

Spring winds and dry fuel conditions are partly to blame for the high number of out-of-control burns reported during the last couple of weeks across La Plata County, fire officials said Wednesday.

“We’ve got quite a bit of dry, dead material on the ground, and we don’t have enough moisture in the soils and green vegetation coming up to keep those from burning,” said Fire Marshal Karola Hanks, with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.

The fire authority has responded to seven out-of-control burns since March 11, said Chief Dan Noonan.

The first significant fire last year occurred April 5 in Lightner Creek Canyon. A resident placed hot ashes outside, and the wind blew them onto dry foliage, sparking a 10-acre blaze.

“We’re almost a month ahead of time,” Noonan said.

The fires have been small in size, about 1 or 2 acres, but that is partly because firefighters have been quick to respond, Hanks said.

“We’ve had a couple where structures were threatened, but they haven’t gotten to the structure,” she said. “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen if we don’t get people concerned.”

The Upper Pine River Fire Protection District has responded to about one fire per day during the last two weeks, said Chief Rich Graeber.

He called it the pre-green-up agricultural burn, which happens every year. For some reason, an above-average number of burns have gone out-of-control this year, he said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday suspended prescribed burns on state land. A prescribed burn may have caused a wildfire that killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes west of Denver.

Hickenlooper said Wednesday that the ban on such fires on state lands, including state parks, would be in effect until a review of the wildfire is complete.

The ban doesn’t affect land controlled by the federal government – which accounts for more than a third of Colorado. However, Hickenlooper urged counties and federal agencies to also consider suspending such burns.

Earlier this week, firefighters responded to an out-of-control burn north of Vallecito Reservoir, at about 8,000 feet elevation, Graeber said. Firefighters drove through snow to reach the fire, he said, which shows the entire area is susceptible to fire.

Residents planning a controlled burn should notify dispatchers, Hanks said. Doing so alerts fire officials that there will be smoke in the area, and if the fire gets out of control, dispatchers will have an address and phone number in advance, she said.

Residents should try to finish their burning before lunchtime, when the winds pick up, Hanks added.

Graeber said residents doing burns need to have adequate water and hand tools available in case a fire escapes their control. If a fire does get out of control, it is best to notify the fire department immediately, he said.

If the property owner can extinguish the fire before firefighters arrive, all the better, he said.

shane@durangoherald.com The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mike Aronson, a firefighter with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, rakes over burned ground along County Road 203 on Wednesday morning in Hermosa after a small controlled burn got out of hand. No structures were threatened. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Mike Aronson, a firefighter with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, rakes over burned ground along County Road 203 on Wednesday morning in Hermosa after a small controlled burn got out of hand. No structures were threatened.

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