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La Plata County joins other land agencies in implementing fire restrictions earlier than planned

Stage 1 precautions effective Thursday morning
La Plata County will impose Stage 1 fire restrictions beginning Friday. However, a red flag warning from the National Weather Service made the restrictions effective as of Thursday morning. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

La Plata County announced Thursday that Stage 1 fire restrictions will go into effect Friday as two fires have struck Southwest Colorado in the last week.

The restrictions are set begin at 12:01 a.m. Friday, though a red flag warning from the National Weather Service that began at 11 a.m. Thursday effectively put Stage 1 restrictions in place as of Thursday morning.

In La Plata County, a red flag warning triggers Stage 1 fire restrictions.

“The fact that the National Weather Service issued their red flag warning, that automatically enacts Stage 1, so we’re there,” said Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith made the decision to impose the fire precautions on the advice of area fire chiefs and in alignment with the U.S. Forest Service, Southern Ute Indian Tribe and other regional groups.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe announced Thursday morning in a news release that Stage 1 restrictions would go into effect for trust lands throughout the Southern Ute Indian Reservation on Friday. In a Wednesday news release, the U.S. Forest Service reported that it had moved up its time frame for restrictions from May 25 to Friday.

An air tanker makes a drop on the Ute Pass Fire on May 13 northeast of Durango. La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said fuel indices show that fire danger is higher in the high country than at lower elevations because of early snowmelt. La Plata County is instituting Stage 1 fire restrictions a month ahead of last year. (Courtesy of Brett Stallings, via Facebook file)

John Lee, chief of the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District and chairman of the La Plata County Fire Chiefs, said the county planned to enter Stage 1 fire restrictions on May 25, but as its federal, tribal and other partners pushed their precautions earlier, the county decided to do the same.

“We’re bordering pieces of ground, so for us to go into it with one message helps to get the word out for people,” Lee said.

La Plata County’s Stage 1 restrictions ban open burning, burn barrels, campfires, coal or wood burning stoves and any open fire in unincorporated areas of the county and on county-owned land.

Explosive materials like fireworks and smoking, except in an enclosed vehicle or building or within a 3-foot area clear of flammable vegetation, are also prohibited.

Charcoal or gas barbecue grills at private residences or fires in a designated campground or inside established metal fire rings with a grate cover on private property are allowed provided they are not left unattended and are fully extinguished after use.

The county’s restrictions do not apply to private lands in the towns of Bayfield and Ignacio, the city of Durango, or federal or tribal lands, according to a news release.

Smith said the Ute Pass Fire near Durango and the Plumtaw Fire north of Pagosa Springs influenced the county implementing Stage 1 precautions earlier.

Every Monday, the Sheriff’s Office has a group call with local, regional and federal partners in which they discuss fuel indices, which measure the moisture content of vegetation. Those indices are the basis for the county’s fire restrictions, but the Plumtaw Fire expedited the timing.

“Everybody kind of agreed on that (May) 25 date, but that new fire became a resource draw, which changed the dynamic a little bit,” Smith said “Everyone yesterday coalesced around (May 20) as a date instead.”

The Plumtaw Fire north of Pagosa Springs after one day of growth. La Plata County and its partners decided to move Stage 1 fire restrictions five days earlier because of the Plumtaw Fire’s impact on firefighting resources. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service-San Juan National Forest file)

The Plumtaw Fire grew throughout Wednesday, expanding to 735 acres Wednesday evening after slowing the previous night. It was 0% contained and more than 180 firefighters were working on the blaze as of Thursday morning, according to a news release.

However, firefighters successfully protected the Fourmile Creek watershed and Lost Valley of the San Juans subdivision, keeping the fire north of Plumtaw Road, according to InciWeb, an interagency emergency information system.

To date, the Plumtaw Fire has cost $1.1 million to fight.

The Ute Pass Fire began on May 13 and burned about 30 acres northeast of Durango, but a quick response got the blaze under control.

La Plata County and the San Juan National Forest enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions last year in mid-June. Lee said fuels in the backcountry were dry earlier this year than in the past five years.

“This is a little bit earlier than we’ve gone into it in the past, but if you look back to 416 (Fire) time frame, we’re not out of it by very far,” he said.

Indices show the high country has a higher fire danger than the low country as a result of fast snowmelt this year, Smith said.

Both Smith and Lee said there were no immediate plans to move into more stringent fire restrictions, but that the county and area fire chiefs would continue to watch conditions and make decisions accordingly.

Holteen said public sentiment supported installing fire restrictions.

County commissioners were previously responsible for instituting fire restrictions, but last year the board repealed and re-enacted the fire prevention section of the county code, allowing the Sheriff’s Office to declare restrictions. Commissioners previously had to go through a public meeting process, which limited the county’s ability to adapt.

“The goal was to allow us to be nimble and move with all of our partners,” Smith said.

Under La Plata County’s code, those who violate fire restrictions face a Class 2 petty offense and initial $500 fine. Each subsequent violation incurs a higher fine up to $1,000.

Lee encouraged caution and awareness from La Plata County residents and visitors. He said the earlier someone can call in a fire the better.

“It only takes a spark in the right conditions and then we have a fire,” he said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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