Just one day into the official summer season, the heat of the coming months combined with the dry conditions of those just passed combine to make residents and lawmakers across the West nervous. In response, federal, state and local officials are rightly using extra caution to prevent any sparks from igniting wildfires in the alarmingly dry region. Residents and visitors should follow suit and be correspondingly aware, vigilant and careful.
Gov. John Hickenlooper set a baseline when he issued an executive order last week banning open fires and fireworks throughout the state, with exceptions for fires in permanent fire pits within designated camping or picnic areas. Commercial and professional fireworks displays were also exempted from the ban, but the message was clear: The state is taking no chances when it comes to fire in this tinder-dry season that is all too reminiscent of the conditions that led to the Missionary Ridge and Hayman fires a decade ago.
Neither is the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 12 national forests in the state. It is issuing its own forest-specific bans. In Southwest Colorado’s San Juan National Forest as well as Bureau of Land Management areas in the region, managers have imposed stage-one restrictions on lower and mid-elevation areas. Those rules limit campfires to permanent rings or grates, require that smoking take place only in vehicles, buildings or areas cleared of vegetation, ban the use of torches or explosives, and requires chain saws to have spark arrestors. These are reasonable limits that must be followed closely by all who enter public lands. The stakes for not doing so are far too high.
La Plata County rightly joined with the state, Forest Service and BLM to impose its own burn restrictions, prohibiting open burning, woodstoves and any campfires in unincorporated parts of the county. Smoking is only allowed in vehicles or structures, and chain saw use must be accompanied by a fire extinguisher.
The severity of these restrictions should send a strong, clear message to all who live in and visit the region that the risk of fire is significant this summer. Authorities are appropriately and proactively responding to those conditions and imparting to the public just how serious the situation could become.
The 68,000-acre High Park Fire near Fort Collins is a dramatic and unsettling testament to Colorado’s fire vulnerability this year. While fire crews have finally gotten the upper hand on the blaze that began June 9, with 55 percent of it contained, it has wrought significant damage. That current example is reinforced by the 10-year commemoration of the Missionary Ridge and Hayman fires – both of which began under conditions nearly identical to those across the region today.
Summertime brings with it many opportunities to enjoy the beauty and outdoor activities that define so much of Colorado’s identity, and that of the southwest corner of the state in particular. Doing so this year, though, requires extra care and awareness.