The wildfires that raged in Western states during the past few years did much to raise public awareness and encourage residents to report smoke sightings. But that's not always a good thing, as local emergency officials have discovered.
An increasing number of residents are calling 911 or local dispatchers to report controlled and prescribed burns throughout the region, a trend that drains already limited emergency resources.
Chuck Vale, Routt County's emergency manager, said it continues to be a challenge to educate residents and visitors about when a fire should or should not be reported to emergency agencies.
The challenge is particularly great during the spring, when many ranchers and farmers use controlled burns to clear irrigation ditches and get rid of old hay. Land management agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, also use the spring to safely burn areas with high concentrations of dead and downed timber and other fire fuels.
Understandably, the sight of smoke rising from a field or over a distant ridge can be worrisome for many people, particularly after the destructive fire season of 2002, Vale said. But in most cases -- at least until the end of May -- the smoke is the result of a prescribed or controlled burn that is under the supervision of farmers and ranchers who conduct such burns annually and have been doing so for decades in the Yampa Valley, Vale said. Those burns are legal and beneficial for the land. Ranchers and farmers don't have to alert emergency officials before starting controlled burns, though they are asked to do so as a courtesy.
"This time of year, it's almost always an agricultural burn," Vale said Tuesday. "If (passers-by) can determine that people are in the vicinity, it's probably fine."
Vale also knows residents can be of great benefit to emergency officials by reporting smoke and fires. But it can be an unnecessary burden and waste of resources to send volunteer firefighters to check on every report of smoke or flames during the spring.
"When you see smoke go over the ridge, I'm not saying don't call, but we may not make an immediate response," Vale said. "Our goal is to not dispatch fire apparatus every time we see smoke this time of year."
Of course, controlled and prescribed burns can get out of control in a hurry and necessitate the assistance of firefighters, as was evidenced last week when a controlled burn west of Hayden jumped U.S. Highway 40 with the help of an afternoon wind.
"It's a real Catch-22 going on," Vale said.
-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org