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La Plata County adds teeth to fire restrictions ahead of summer

Changes include penalties and flexibility for implementing burn bans
La Plata County adjusted its fire restrictions this week, adding penalties for violating restrictions, provisions for automatically enacting restrictions and procedural flexibility for implementing restrictions. (The Journal file)

With warm weather and wildfires in mind, La Plata County commissioners have strengthened fire restrictions and related penalties in unincorporated areas of the county.

The commissioners passed an ordinance this week that makes it easier to begin and end fire restrictions, links the county’s Stage 1 restrictions to red flag days, and includes penalties in the county code for breaking restrictions. The changes go into effect June 28 for unincorporated areas and land owned by the county.

“I’m very concerned. It was welcome – last week’s rain – but it was surely not enough. So I look forward to this going into effect,” said Commissioner Matt Salka before the board of commissioners unanimously approved the changes Tuesday.

Unincorporated areas of the county have a significant risk of wildland fires, and many of the areas are along the wildland-urban interface where there is an increased risk of wildfires spreading from wildland vegetation to developed areas, the county said.

One notable change in the approved ordinance: Stage 1 restrictions will automatically go into effect when the National Weather Service issues red flag warnings, unless other restrictions are in place.

Stage 1 restrictions ban fireworks and any explosives, and state law bans burning of some materials, such as wood products, plastics and tires.

The policy allows charcoal and gas grills, but limits smoking locations, welding torches, campfire size and location, among other potential sources of sparks. Agricultural burns are highly discouraged.

On average, the National Weather Service has issued about 19 red flag warnings each year since 2010. In 2020, the service issued 39.

“We’ve issued 19 already. We’re already at our yearly average and it’s only May,” said Jeff Colton, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist.

Red flag warnings indicate increased risk of fire. The National Weather Service issues the warnings for the Western Slope and eastern Utah when the humidity is forecast to be less than 15%, wind speeds are greater than or equal to 25 mph, and fuels are rated “critical” by fire agencies. Those conditions must last for three or more hours.

There is a slight chance for a red flag warning over Memorial Day weekend, said Tom Renwick, a Weather Service meteorologist. The humidity will be low Sunday afternoon but will increase to 30% to 40% Monday.

“We’re still mired in extreme drought conditions,” Colton said.

The county also simplified its process for changing restrictions. In the past, the three county commissioners had to meet in a public meeting, with staff members present and a 24-hour public notice, to enact or rescind restrictions.

“It’s just a lot of meetings to have to coordinate, and we ended up being way behind everyone else in rescinding fire restrictions,” said Sarah Jacobson, with county administration, referring to the county’s response to the 416 Fire in 2018.

Under the ordinance passed Tuesday, the sheriff or the sheriff’s designee can declare fire restrictions if there is evidence of high fire danger.

The change will simplify coordination with federal and tribal partners, county staff members said.

Starting June 28, anyone who violates the fire restrictions commits a Class 2 petty offense and can be punished by fines: $500 for a first offense, $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for three offenses or more. That is in addition to any restitution for costs related to fire suppression or property damage.

‘“I think this is another tool in our decision-making toolbox, which is very important, as we see our warming climate that seems to be, unfortunately, what’s called the ‘new normal,’” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.