Rain reduces fire threat

Voluntary fishing ban lifted; other restrictions remain in place

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The level of fire danger, as denoted on signs like this one on the west side of Steamboat Springs on Monday afternoon, has decreased steadily during the past couple of weeks due to consistent afternoon rain showers.

— Frequent rain showers in recent weeks have reduced the risk of wildfire and led to the repeal of a voluntary fishing ban on the Steamboat Springs stretch of the Yampa River.

A repeal of fire bans may follow.

A sign on the west side of town showing the risk of fires was reduced Thursday from "extreme" to "moderate." Routt County Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale said the "extreme" display was an overstatement, but that the "high" and "very high" signs were stolen and are in the process of being replaced.

A countywide fire ban for private landowners in unincorporated Routt County remained in effect Monday but may be lifted soon. A repeal of the ban will be discussed in a conference call today, Vale said.

"Last week, we were right on the edge of lifting the restrictions, and this week I look forward to a strong push to do that," Vale said.

The ban prohibits a myriad of activities, from smoking - except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site or while stopped in an area of at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or clear of all flammable material - to using explosives requiring fuses or blasting caps. The Sheriff's Office may grant exceptions to the ban.

More than an inch of rain has fallen at most measuring sites in Routt County during the past week, Vale said. Even so, Vale said the county still is averaging about one wildfire a day, all caused by lightning and contained by local forces.

"The message has to be, still be very, very careful with fire," Vale said.

Fire restrictions in the Routt National Forest still are in place, and spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said there have not been discussions to lift those. Fires may not be built anywhere in the forest except established campgrounds.

Ritschard said while the rain is welcome, lightning from thunderstorms also has increased. In addition, most showers have been brief drizzles and have done little to erase the effects of several years of drought. The forest still is very dry, Ritschard said, and a run of dry, sunny days could result in trees that have been struck by lightning and are smoldering to develop into more serious fires.

Such a stretch is expected to start Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

"We'll see at least a temporary drying trend later this week," meteorologist Jim Daniels said.

Daniels said the dry stretch probably would be short-lived, however, with another "monsoonal surge" moving in during the weekend. He said the amount of rain in the region recently is part of a normal pattern of subtropical moisture in the area from mid-July through August.

Recent rain also has been good news for anglers and tubers. A Division of Wildlife ban on fishing the Steamboat stretch of the Yampa River was lifted during the weekend, and Backdoor Sports owner Peter Van De Carr said his business has "turned the corner" from a bleak outlook in mid-July.

DOW spokesman Randy Hampton called the town stretch of the river an "important fishery" and said compliance with the voluntary fishing ban was good.

In implementing the ban, the DOW looks at water temperature, stream flows and dissolved oxygen levels. Hampton said the ban is considered when the river's temperature goes above 74 degrees, its flow falls below 25 percent of its historical average or its dissolved oxygen level falls below 6 milligrams per liter.

On Monday afternoon, the U.S. Geological Survey was reporting the stream flow was 129 cubic feet per second, well above 25 percent of its historical average. Hampton said the water temperature was below 72 degrees and dissolved oxygen levels were above 6 mg/l.

Due to differing criteria, the fishing ban that has been in place for a few weeks was only briefly joined by a city ban on commercial tubing. For example, the city's cutoff for stream flow is 85 cfs, rather than 25 percent of the river's historical average. Hampton said the DOW hopes to synchronize its standards with the city's by next summer.

"If the river is open to tubing, is it fair to close it to fishing?" Hampton asked. He said both activities put stress on the river's fish, which congregate in the same deep, cool pools of water - such as Charlie's Hole - that also attract swimmers and tubers.

Van De Carr said he is supportive of a revision to the city's river management plan, but hopes the city and the DOW would first address larger water quality issues with the Yampa River before considering stricter restrictions on tubing.

"I'm a visual polluter," Van De Carr said. "I'll admit to that. But as far as polluting water quality, I'm a little player."

Van DeCarr said he believes the Yampa's water is being overheated by water running into it from irrigation systems at ranches and golf courses and off nonporous surfaces such as blacktop and metal roofs.

"Before stricter restrictions are put on me, I think it makes sense to go to the source," Van De Carr said. "That's what I hope will come out of our discussions."

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