Routt County's wildfire season started about three weeks earlier than usual due to mild temperatures and strong winds. Beginning in early April with several five-acre grass fires, the fire season has already grown to include a 500-acre fire that started as an agricultural burn and got out of control.
An unusually dry fall led officials to place a ban on open fires in the county in late October, an atypical time for fires. Temperatures this spring have been mild -- causing snowpack to melt sooner -- and high winds have whipped controlled burns into furious fires.
The fire season is about three weeks early, according to Chuck Vale. Vale has been the emergency services manager for the county for 10 years and a volunteer with the North Routt Fire District for 30 years. He said this spring is one of the earliest starts to a fire season he can remember.
About a dozen agricultural burns have gotten out of control since the first of April.
"I don't remember having these kinds of grass fires until at least May," Vale said.
The fires have involved dead grass recently exposed by melting snow. Add gusty winds and the grass dries fast -- and burns fast, Vale said.
In the spring, firefighters let many of those fires burn themselves out.
"We can take it over to a ridge with snow or a ditch with water. There are a lot of natural barriers in the spring to stop a fire. It's a lot different than fall when it's all dry," Vale said.
Last week, a landowner clearing grass out of his ditches near Hayden started a wildfire estimated at 500 acres. West Routt Fire Chief Bryan Rickman said firefighters had trouble building fire lines because the ground was soft and wet in places.
"There were patches of snow on north-facing slopes, but the stuff that's south-facing has dried up. The wind has dried the stuff on top and made it dry enough to burn," Rickman said. "This is real early for us to already have to be that worried about wildland fires."
Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup said the first fire of the season in his district came "way too early." Wisecup said the 20-acre fire west of Oak Creek this week involved conditions that included the need for a snowmobile in some places, although he said he could hear the dead grass crackling under his feet in other places.
"It's way too early. We've never seen it this dry this early," Wisecup said. "We got a fair amount of snow this winter, but we had a lot of sun that's melting accumulations on the south-facing slopes."
This spring is not shaping up to be a typical fire season, especially on the heels of last year -- the busiest fire season Wisecup said he's seen in at least six years.
"I hope we get some moisture. We need some good spring rain," Wisecup said.
In north Routt County, Fire Chief Peter Bailey is concerned with how fast the snowpack is drying out.
"In a matter of a day you can see a hay meadow that was full of snow become free of snow," Bailey said. "We haven't responded to a wildland fire yet, but I'm still very concerned about the dryness up here."
Downtown Steamboat received about nine inches of precipitation in the first three weeks of April last year, compared to about an inch so far this year.
Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said strong winds are typical for this time of year when low pressure systems track into the southwest United States.
Jones said he would be concerned if this weather pattern continued into the summer.
"In June, the warmer temperatures and dry grass could pose a significant problem, especially with lightning and winds. Although usually by July, the monsoon season kicks in and we get more moisture with afternoon thunderstorms," Jones said.
Last spring, several fires started on Bureau of Land Management property in northwest Colorado before the traditional summer fire season. Lynn Barclay, a spokeswoman for the BLM, said a short dry period in the spring is normal, but she said this season it has come early.
"By May 1, we're usually into green-up," Barclay said of the time of year when moisture levels increase with new growth.
Agricultural burning is a necessary part of life for Routt County farmers and ranchers. For example, they clear ditches of dead grass so irrigation water can flow freely.
Vale said agricultural burning starts as soon as the snow melts, which happened earlier than usual in most parts of the county.
"The agricultural burning is a good thing for the land, but not when it crosses off your land into someone else's land," Vale said. "If you set fire to your own land, you can do that without a permit and the risk is you burn your property. When it starts across a fence line, the one who started the fire could be held liable for the cost of that suppression."
In most areas of the county except in or near city limits, ranchers and farmers don't need permission to burn, but officials appreciate a "courtesy" permit.
"People need to call the communications center or the sheriff's office because if we don't know what's going on, we can't respond quickly," Bailey said.
He suggested that anyone with a question about the right time to plan a controlled burn call 879-1090.
"You should do it in the early morning when winds are calm and there's a lower dew point. But it's deceiving. You still need to be a detective and look at the conditions around the burn. If you don't know, call your fire district and ask them to check it out for you," Bailey said.
"People have a tendency to start a controlled burn, then walk away and think there's no way it could get out of control, but they need to monitor it very closely. Some things can really take off, like scrub oak and dry grasses," Bailey added.
Wisecup said Oak Creek's response time to the recent fire was quick because the rancher who started a controlled burn had called the location in.
That was not the case in west Routt County last week when Rickman chased smoke to a fire but couldn't reach it. If he'd known the exact location, he said he could have gotten there almost an hour earlier.
Both the 500-acre fire near Hayden and the 20-acre fire in south Routt are being investigated to determine if the people who started the burns will be held liable for the cost of suppressing them once they got out of control.
Vale said he has a total of $2,500 in his wildland suppression budget for the year and he's already spent at least $500.
"That's probably too much for where we are in the year," Vale said. "People have to know, when you strike that match you may be held accountable."
Agricultural burning is good for the land until it gets out of control and starts to threaten a home. Residents building homes in rural areas of the county are putting an increasing strain on fire prevention and suppression efforts. As residential subdivisions creep closer to natural areas, officials are trying to educate homeowners about fire danger in wildland areas.
Bailey said the growth in north Routt is "explosive." He said large homes are being constructed in beautiful, natural settings with limited access.
"They also want trees around the house, but those structures are almost indefensible," Bailey said.
These days, developers are urged to clear a defensible space around a home, so that a wildfire doesn't move directly from the forest to a house surrounded by trees and bushes.
Vale said development has changed the way fire chiefs make tactical decisions.
"It challenges our resources. We have to stop and check because there's a new subdivision where there used to be agricultural land," Vale said.
District boundaries may change
According to state statute, wildland fires are the responsibility of the county sheriff. In Routt County, Steamboat's fire department has historically carried the burden of fighting wildfires in cooperation with the smaller county districts. The five districts in the county contract with the sheriff through Vale, submitting a bill to the county for the cost of staff and equipment.
Steamboat Fire Chief Bob Struble said the city can no longer afford to to devote firefighters and resources to wildland fires, because doing so leaves the city with fewer firefighters to respond to structure fires within the city. Steamboat government officials have said the city will no longer respond to fires outside the city limits after Jan. 1, 2001.
Vale said he hasn't gotten that official notification in writing, but for now, most fire chiefs are working under the assumption that they may have to expand their coverage next year.
Wisecup said Oak Creek's department is at its highest level of volunteers in years. With 22 volunteers, Oak Creek is about seven people shy of the number of firefighters in Steamboat.
North Routt also is experiencing an upswing in volunteers with 14 people. Many of those people are new to fire fighting and will have to be trained in both structural and wildland techniques this summer, Bailey said.
"I do understand (Struble's) problem. He has a large metropolitan area to deal with. As for other districts expanding, we don't have the men or equipment to do it," Bailey said.
Bailey said he doesn't view the situation as a problem, though.
"It's a matter of people having the proper attitude to want to solve it," he said. "If you need us, we're coming -- no matter what."