Officials ponder fire restrictions

Caution stressed for July 4 holiday

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— Routt County fire officials and the U.S. Forest Service are not asking for fire restrictions yet, but the upcoming Fourth of July holiday has them nervous.

County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale appeared to be ready to ask for fire restrictions during a meeting with county commissioners Monday.

"The fire districts felt it was time, and they don't have huge fire suppression forces and the big weekend is coming up," Vale told the commissioners.

Vale said the surrounding fire district chiefs are worried about all the extra campers expected for the Independence Incident concert featuring String Cheese Incident being held in Steamboat Springs July 3 and 4. The band is known for its young, dedicated followers who tend to camp instead of staying in local motels. Organizers expect 15,000 people, with many of them camping in the Routt National Forest.

Vale backed off an immediate request for fire restrictions after the U.S. Forest Service told commissioners it is not ready to implement fire restrictions.

Commissioner Dan Ellison felt Routt County should be in tune with the Forest Service.

"I'd like our actions to match up with the Forest Service," said Ellison, explaining that having different fire restrictions from different agencies will confuse people.

A representative of the Forest Service agreed with Vale that extreme caution needed to be used when using open fires and fireworks in the next two weeks.

"If we don't get some rain in the next several weeks, we could jump into full fire restrictions," said Kent Foster, a fire management officer with the Forest Service.

Full restrictions would mean no open burning on the ground or in the metal fire grates supplied at some campgrounds.

"Anyone recreating in the forest would not be able to have fires outside of cooking stoves," Foster said. Cooking stoves would have to be self-contained units such as Coleman stoves.

Foster said of the seven indicators used to evaluate whether fire restrictions are put in place, only two apply at this time the amount of dead wood in the forest and the flammability of that wood.

"Right now the amount of dead fuels lying on the ground is a month ahead of last year," Foster said. "The reason for being so dry right now is a lack of recovery from last year's drought season."

As always, fireworks are illegal in the national forests, and Foster said the use of fire is still restricted in the forest blowdown area along the Seedhouse corridor in North Routt County.

In the meantime, both the Forest Service and the county will step up patrols on public lands during the July 3 and 4 String Cheese Incident concert.

"Untended fires are a big concern," Foster said.

While Vale has decided not to ask for immediate fire restrictions on private land, he will ask county commissioners to approve a resolution that could quickly implement such restrictions if the situation changes in the next week and a half. He will make the request at today's county commissioners meeting.

Commissioner Doug Monger acknowledged the dry conditions are getting bad.

"The ag producers are finding out it's as dry as we've seen in a long time," said Monger, who is also a small rancher.

The local agricultural extension office is reporting some farmers are being forced to cut their alfalfa and hay early because dry conditions are causing crops to mature faster and stop growing.

To make matters worse, there have been two "devastating freezes" in the last few weeks, Monger said.

"The oak brush froze during these freezes and most of it hasn't even greened up.

"Sage brush and oak brush is as flammable or more flammable than anything else," he said.

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