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Local governments and land agencies upgrade fire restrictions

Stage 2 bans campfires in San Juan National Forest, among other activities
A Type 1 helicopter drops water on the Bear Dance Fire in Ignacio on June 3. La Plata County, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and San Juan National Forest announced Tuesday that Stage 2 fire restrictions will begin Wednesday as fire danger in the area worsens. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

La Plata County, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and San Juan National Forest announced Tuesday that Stage 2 fire restrictions will begin Wednesday amid recent wildfires and dry and hot conditions that continue to plague the area.

“Whenever the fuels dry out enough and there’s a potential for the start of a large fire, we want to make sure that we take all of the possible human emissions away from the forest,” said Scott Owen, spokesman for San Juan National Forest. “We can’t control the lightning, but we can control human-caused fires.”

In San Juan National Forest and La Plata County, Stage 2 restrictions impose a complete ban on campfires, including those in developed recreation sites like campgrounds and picnic areas. The ban extends to charcoal grills and barbecues, as well as coal and wood-burning stoves.

Only gas stoves with a shut-off valve are allowed.

On the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, fires outside of officially designated or developed campsites are prohibited, but campfires for ceremonial purposes are under the discretion of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Fire office in Ignacio, according to a news release.

Other Stage 2 restrictions in La Plata County ban:

  • Open burning, burn barrels and agricultural burning except by agricultural producers in limited cases.
  • Smoking, unless within an enclosed vehicle, trailer or building, or while in an area at least 3 feet in diameter devoid flammable vegetation.
  • Welding, pipefitting, metal grinding or operating a torch with open flame unless within a 20-foot radius free of vegetation and flammable material and with a fire watcher equipped with one 2.5-gallon pressurized fire extinguisher, a 5-pound ABC extinguisher or a pressurized water supply.
  • Operating any internal combustion engine unless equipped with an effective and properly installed spark arrester.
  • Operating a chain saw without a spark arrester, fire extinguisher and shovel.
  • Using an explosive, including fireworks, blasting caps or any other incendiary device.

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

San Juan National Forest does not allow blasting, welding or operating a torch with open flame, smoking – except within an enclosed vehicle, trailer or building – and using a motor vehicle off established roads, motorized trails or parking areas on national forest lands under Stage 2 fire restrictions.

Under La Plata County’s code, those who violate fire restrictions face a Class 2 petty offense and an initial $500 fine. Each subsequent violation increases the fine until it reaches $1,000 for each offense. Violators are also liable for any firefighting costs or property damage.

The penalties for not following fire restrictions on the Southern Ute Reservation and San Juan National Forest include potential imprisonment.

“People just need to be cognizant that we don’t take this lightly. These only go in effect when we believe that there is substantial fire danger to the public, and we’re just doing this to try to be safe,” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith.

The local governments and San Juan National Forest coordinated the transition to Stage 2 restrictions after simultaneously implementing Stage 1 fire restrictions last month.

Last week, the governmental entities began considering a move to more stringent restrictions as indices showed extreme fire danger, Smith said.

La Plata County has already experienced a number of fires this year, including the Ute Pass and Perins Peak fires near Durango and the Bear Dance Fire in Ignacio. All three ignited within a month.

Without any recent precipitation, grasses and other fire fuels in the area have dried out, and wind remains a factor.

“The moisture has left our grasses, which is what you’re seeing start in these high winds,” said John Lee, chief of the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District and chairman of the La Plata County Fire Chiefs.

The National Weather Service instituted a red flag warning until 9 p.m. Tuesday for Southwest Colorado.

In addition to hot and windy conditions and dry fuels exacerbating fire risk, regional resources like hot shot crews and air response have been diverted to wildfires in other parts of the Southwest, which contributed to the Stage 2 restrictions, Lee said.

Officials are keeping an eye on a storm system that is forecast to bring rain to the area this weekend. Any change in fire restrictions will depend on the precipitation the region receives and the impact it has on fire danger, Smith said.

“The thing that’s most concerning about the weather coming is the potential for lightning,” he said. “We haven’t had enough moisture and fires can still get started even if the storm does have moisture accompanying it.”

With the monsoon season still weeks away, Stage 2 fire restrictions are likely to stay for some time.

Owen asked for increased caution.

“We’re counting on the public’s help and cooperation with the Stage 2 fire restrictions,” he said. “Nobody wants a large catastrophic fire and this is the best thing that we can do to help maintain the forest for future years and future generations.”


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