Our view: We are in fire danger zone

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It looked like something out of a Road Runner cartoon: Smack in the middle of the Spring Creek Trail on Wednesday morning, a smoldering fire was covered with wood chips that trailed thickly into the underbrush and trees beyond. The effect was reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote's long ignition fuse burning toward his pile of TNT.

The people who started this fire -- whose actions indicate they are about as intelligent as the feckless cartoon coyote -- apparently thought the best way to put it out was to heap damp wood chips on top of it and leave, perhaps not realizing the quickest way to turn those damp chips into an ignition source would be to dry them over a nice, warm fire.

Fortunately, the trail is used heavily so that early morning joggers found the smoldering fire -- and the beer cans and broken bottles left in it -- and called the Steamboat Springs Fire Department, which doused the smoking embers and, kindly, picked up the broken glass and other litter left behind.

Consider this a cautionary tale that is particularly pertinent this Fourth of July weekend.

Although we've had a few wet weeks, we are far from out of the fire danger zone.

We've received enough moisture to lower the forest-fire danger rating to moderate and make it possible to enjoy fireworks displays on Independence Day. However, no one can afford to be as careless as these Spring Creek visitors were with their fire.

In the words of Steamboat Springs Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble, "It's never a good idea -- not even if it's raining hard -- to leave a campfire" without fully extinguishing it.

The damp ground and green vegetation create a deceptive picture of just how dry the forests and fuels are. The wider the diameter of vegetation, the longer it takes to lose moisture and the longer it takes to regain it. That means that while dry grass becomes lush with a few rainstorms, it takes a lot more wet weather over an extended period of time to accomplish the same thing in a mature pine tree.

And our forests are in a particularly precarious state, as we will explore in a series beginning in next week's Pilot & Today.

Our forests are mature and, in the natural cycle, ready to die and be replaced by new growth. But with trees weakened by a combination of drought and beetle infestations, that natural cycle could become devastating when sparked by lightning, man-made fire or fireworks. The images of recent summers are fresh in people's minds; no one wants to be the person responsible for starting a fire that destroys homes and lives.

As you celebrate this Fourth of July in Routt County's spectacular natural setting, enjoy all the area has to offer -- and treat it responsibly in return.

Don't be lulled into complacency when dealing with fire or fireworks. Obey fireworks bans on public land. Be smart about starting campfires and smarter still about extinguishing them, completely, before leaving.

We may be losing our forests, but we'd like to lose them to the forces of nature, not the stupidity of man.

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