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La Plata County enacts Stage 1 fire restrictions

Move falls in line with other land management agencies in region
La Plata County commissioners Tuesday unanimously enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions in the unincorporated areas of the county, as well as lands owned by La Plata County.

La Plata County entered Stage 1 Fire restrictions Tuesday, falling in line with other land management agencies as dry and hot weather conditions pose an increasing threat of wildfire.

“The last thing we need during a public health crisis and pandemic is to fight a major forest fire,” said Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.

At the request of local fire chiefs, La Plata County commissioners unanimously enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions in the unincorporated areas of the county, as well as lands owned by La Plata County.

The restrictions include:

A ban on open burns, burn barrels and agricultural burning. Some agricultural producers are exempt from Stage 1 fire restrictions.Smoking must be confined to enclosed vehicles or buildings, in developed recreational sites or in an area that is surrounded by 3 feet in diameter that is clear of flammable vegetation.Using explosive material, such as fireworks, blasting caps or incendiary devices.With high fire danger across the region, La Plata County joins the U.S. Forest Service and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in enacting Stage 1 fire restrictions.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning – an acknowledgment of higher fire danger – from noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday for elevations below 8,000 feet in Southwest Colorado.

Red flag warnings are issued when relative humidities fall below 10% to 15% and when winds are between 15 to 25 mph. Wind gusts Wednesday are expected to be as high as 35 mph.

A red flag warning means conditions are favorable for the rapid ignition and spread of fires, and agricultural burning is strongly discouraged by the Weather Service.

John Lee, chief of Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District, said Monday’s rain did little to abate the fire danger, and it’s likely going to be necessary to move into more restrictive fire regulations if conditions don’t change.

“The science says it, and the fires we’re seeing says it,” Lee said.

Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said local fire districts usually try to hold off on fire restrictions for as long as possible.

“But we’re at the point where the science really does show we need to restrict open burning, just based on the likelihood of how quickly a fire could escape and become a big deal,” he said.

Richard Bustamante, fire manager for the San Juan National Forest, said the agency enacted fire restrictions in early April, anticipating high fire danger.

But he said public lands around Durango are experiencing “unprecedented use” by recreationists, comparable to crowds seen during the Fourth of July holiday. Even with restrictions in place, he said Forest Service crews are finding a high number of abandoned campfires.

Lachelt questioned whether it was more prudent to enact Stage 2 fire restrictions, especially with the Memorial Day holiday upcoming.

“A fire could get started really quickly,” she said. “I want us to be prepared and as cautious as possible.”

Bustamante said it’s better to enact a tiered approach, though Stage 2 fire restrictions are likely in the upcoming weeks. He said Forest Service crews, previously under a stay-at-home order, will now return to the field to better enforce the fire restrictions.

“We’ll at least have our own folks out patrolling,” he said.

Fire personnel are concerned the coronavirus pandemic will hamper firefighting efforts. In recent weeks, there has been an uptick in fires that have escaped and threatened to go out of control.

Bustamante said soils in the high country froze before snow arrived this winter, and, as a result, weren’t able to absorb the moisture and are extremely dry.

At lower elevations, vegetation is starting to green up because of good moisture in 2019. But with a lack of precipitation this year, those fuels are expected to dry early and increase fire danger.

Lee said the Bureau of Land Management is not pushing fire restrictions for any other region where it manages lands, expect La Plata County. Follow-up questions to the BLM were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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