Routt County fire restrictions are possible

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— An unusually dry winter and early spring has Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins considering fire and burning restrictions.

“The conditions are so poor right now,” Wiggins said Thursday. “Next week if we don’t get any moisture, we’re going to have to sit down and implement some restrictions.”

The National Weather Service in Grand Junction has issued a fire weather watch for Saturday afternoon and evening for most of western Colorado below snow level because of predicted strong winds, low relative humidity and dry fuels. The fire watch includes Routt County.

Local firefighters since March 15 have been called to help with four fires that started out as controlled agricultural burns but became uncontrolled wildfires, Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said. A fire intended to clear ditches at the Beaver Valley Ranch in far southwest Routt County on Monday burned about 200 acres and was about a half mile from the national forest. It was put out Tuesday.

“Until it really greens up, I would advise against anyone doing any open burning whatsoever,” Struble said.

Wiggins said most landowners perform burns responsibly, but controlled burns always have the possibility of growing into wildfires.

“That’s how the fire on the Front Range got started,” Wiggins said, referring to the massive Lower North Fork Fire.

It is thought that strong winds from a prescribed burn initiated by the Colorado State Forest Service crossed a control line and led to the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County. The fire had affected 4,140 acres as of Thursday, damaged or destroyed 27 structures and killed two people. There are 680 people assigned to the fire, including at least three local firefighters. Those firefighters are North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley, Oak Creek Fire Protection District Capt. Jeff Buffetti and John Twitchell, a local forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

Until the fire is reviewed by the state, Gov. John Hickenlooper has suspended prescribed burns on state-owned lands and has urged counties and federal agencies to consider temporary suspensions.

“I understand what he’s saying, but I still think there are areas where you can do a prescribed burn and be safe,” Struble said.

Ultimately, it is the sheriff who could impose fire bans on private property, but Struble said local fire and burning restrictions are discussed by a group that includes the chiefs from the local fire districts. The decision is based on criteria such as the moisture content of fuels and the availability of resources to fight fires.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said a prescribed burn was scheduled for an area south of the Indian Run State Wildlife Area in the southwest part of the county Wednesday, but the burn was canceled. He said crews were relying on snow cover to help control the burn, but the snow had melted.

“More than likely we won’t be able to do any additional burns this year,” Voos said.

The warm and dry spring weather is unusual but not unheard of.

Struble said that during April 1989 or 1990, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters were called to help with 30 wildfires that began as controlled burns.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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