Hot air balloon regulations different in Steamboat, Routt County

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Balloon regulations vary by county

Stage 2 fire restrictions have been enacted in many counties throughout Colorado, and while most of the specific restrictions are the same or very similar from county to county, there are notable differences when it comes to hot air balloons.

In Grand County, for example, the restrictions specifically allow for “gas or liquid-fueled fires used to inflate hot air balloons.” Summit County and Grand County, however, approved restrictions that prohibit “inflating or propelling hot air balloons.” Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks similarly has banned hot air balloons.

And in counties like Routt, the term “hot air balloon” never is mentioned in the Stage 2 restrictions. Undersheriff Ray Birch has interpreted the prohibition of “operating a torch with an open flame” to apply to hot air balloons. But Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue interprets differently the restrictions approved by Steamboat Springs City Council last week. Accordingly, fire officials for the city don’t currently have any issues with hot air balloons.

— Steamboat’s Rainbow Weekend will be missing a bit of its color Saturday and Sunday with the absence of 30 hot air balloons that were scheduled to take flight over the Yampa Valley as part of the 32nd annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo. But that doesn’t mean the skies over Steamboat Springs will be devoid of the floating aircraft.

Like he did Thursday morning, Ian Cox, owner of Steamboat Balloon Tours, will continue to take passengers for rides aboard his trademark hot air balloon. And as long as he doesn’t touch down outside of city limits, he won’t be in violation of any laws or fire restrictions.

The Routt County Sheriff’s Office, which on Tuesday successfully asked that the event permit for the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo be revoked because of fire danger, said hot air balloons and their pressurized propane-fueled flames violate a provision of the Stage 2 fire restrictions and thus present a danger to the community.

Undersheriff Ray Birch, who made the request to revoke the Balloon Rodeo’s permit, said he’s just trying to deal with the hand dealt by Mother Nature.

“We just want to do the right thing,” Birch said Thursday. “God forbid something happened and a fire should initiate.”

But the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have jurisdiction inside Steamboat city limits, where Fire Chief Mel Stewart has given the go-ahead for private hot air ballooning to continue.

“Within city limits, hot air balloons are permissible,” Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Capt. Travis Wilkinson said Thursday. “They are a noted exception from the Stage 2 fire restrictions currently in place.”

While noting that his department’s approach could change depending on future fire conditions, Wilkinson said his boss doesn’t think balloons pose a legitimate fire hazard within Steamboat Springs.

“Any open flame presents a certain level of fire danger,” Wilkinson said. “If (Stewart) thought it was an undue hazard or danger at this point, he would ban them in the city of Steamboat Springs.”

Wilkinson made clear that the dangers are different inside and outside city limits, where an urban landscape characterized by asphalt, concrete and irrigated lawns gives way to open meadows and hillside forests. The city, Wilkinson said, more naturally retards wildfire.

So for the time being, at least, Cox and his crew can continue to operate their balloon tours over the skies of Steamboat. A wayward course that ends outside of city limits, however, could result in a summons and a fine.

“It still falls within the Stage 2 fire restrictions,” Birch said about a hot air balloon’s flame, which he interprets to be a prohibited “torch with an open flame.” “Whether it’s a private person or an event doesn’t change the restriction.”

Birch said his deputies would use their discretion in enforcing violations of fire restrictions, but their commitment to preventing wildfire won’t be subject to variation.

“If we just hear a report of smoke spotted, you’re going to have a couple of deputies rolling pretty hard to find out what’s happening,” he said. “If we receive a complaint from a citizen in the county in regards to any violations of the Stage 2 restrictions, we’ll respond to that, including the hot air balloons.”

Cox said Thursday that although he was disappointed the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo was canceled, he empathizes with the decision Birch had to make.

“A safe call is always a good call,” said Cox, who has been flying hot air balloons in the Yampa Valley for 30 years. “I understand that, but I don’t want balloons to be misunderstood, either.

Cox estimates there have been 25,000 hot air balloon take-offs and landings in the Yampa Valley, including Hot Air Balloon Rodeo flights, in his three decades as a pilot here. He can’t recall a single incident of fire.

“We don’t have tip-over landings in this valley,” Cox said. “Even if you used the flame at ground level, it’s so heavily pressurized that it can’t be blown to the side or downward.”

Cox’s bigger concern is that hot air balloons are getting a bad rap — and an undeserved one at that.

“Balloons aren’t dangerous,” he said. “Balloons are very misunderstood.”

He’ll continue to fight that perception one flight at a time — in city limits, of course.

“It’s restrictive,” Cox said about his new flight boundaries, “but it doesn’t make it impossible.”

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