Our View: Assessing risk of hot air balloons
July 7, 2012
Despite the scattered rainstorms last week, the fire danger in Northwest Colorado remains palpable. Thus, it's hard to argue with the safety-first approach taken by officials in deciding whether to move forward with events like the Fourth of July fireworks show that pose a wildfire threat.
Still, we can't help but express our disappointment in how the permit for the 32nd annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo in Steamboat Springs was handled. Routt County, acting at the request of the Sheriff's Office, pulled the plug on the event Tuesday, citing fire danger.
We're not convinced that the decision was the right one, and we wish more time and discussion could have been given to the matter.
The Routt County Planning Department issued an event permit June 19 that allowed the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo to proceed. Plans were for some 30 balloons to participate, taking off from Bald Eagle Lake just outside the city limits of Steamboat Springs. Safety precautions had been implemented, including briefing hot air balloon pilots of the enhanced fire danger and staffing the Balloon Rodeo takeoff with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters.
Routt County adopted Stage 2 fire restrictions June 27. Such restrictions basically ban anything with an open flame. But it should be noted that hot air balloons are not mentioned at all in the fire restrictions. Similarly, the use of pressurized liquid or gas devices is not prohibited by the restrictions.
Still, the Sheriff's Office took the position that the hot air balloons represented the use of a "torch with an open flame." The Sheriff's Office felt that while fire personnel could monitor the takeoff of 30 balloons from Bald Eagle Lake, there was no control over where the balloons would land and thus there was too much risk. The Sheriff's Office argued that the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo did not have an exemption from the Stage 2 fire restrictions, and the Planning Department agreed, effectively putting a stop to the event.
Ironically, the morning after the Balloon Rodeo cancellation was announced, balloons could be spotted flying over Steamboat. That's because the city of Steamboat Springs has said the Stage 2 fire restrictions it has adopted do not apply to hot air balloons.
We can certainly empathize with Routt County Undersheriff Ray Birch, who handled the permit issue on behalf of the Sheriff's Office. "We just want to do the right thing," Birch said Thursday. "God forbid something happened and a fire should initiate." Birch noted that the governor's office had threatened to withhold state aid in the event of a wildland fire caused by allowing an event that violated Stage 2 fire restrictions.
Still, it should be noted that there is no record of a Hot Air Balloon Rodeo prompting a fire in the county, despite 31 previous balloon rodeos and thousands of hot air balloon flights over the valley.
The Hot Air Balloon Rodeo is a signature event, one of the first things that come to mind when visitors and locals think of Steamboat in the summer. The cancellation of the event is a big blow, especially coming as it did on the heels of the fireworks show cancellation.
Given the magnitude of the Balloon Rodeo and the different interpretations of the Stage 2 fire restrictions by the city and the county, perhaps more effort could have been made to salvage the Balloon Rodeo. At a minimum, city and county safety officials should work together to adopt clearer guidelines and risk assessment policies regarding hot air balloons before the 2013 event arrives.