“The safety of you and your family is your responsibility…”
Take a walk off the beaten path anywhere in the valley and listen to the crunch beneath your feet. That sound is ominous for local safety officials who have been meeting regularly to prepare for a potential wildfire emergency that could end in local evacuations.
The current conditions are ripe for such a situation. The state is rife with news of several wildfires spreading quickly in the dry, hot windy conditions. Local law enforcement and fire personnel are seriously worried that a stray spark or some dry lightning could turn the valley into one of the state’s hot spots. Hinsdale County is implementing Stage-2 fire restrictions this week. Our area remains under Stage-1 restrictions, which essentially means no fires anywhere except in regulated campgrounds and no fireworks anywhere.
“Ten years ago in 2002 it was pretty dry,” admitted Crested Butte Chief Marshal Tom Martin. “But this is as dry as I can ever remember. It’s really, really dry out there. Until we get moisture wildfire is a very real threat. The idea of a fire roaring down Kebler toward town is frightening and with the afternoon winds we’ve gotten the last few weeks, it is something we are concerned about. It is dangerous out there.”
Gunnison Basin Wildfire Council chairperson Dennis Spritzer agrees. He said he drove over Kebler Tuesday and it was warm, especially for June. “Even the passes are hot and that’s not a good sign,” he said. “The combination of the heat, the low humidity and the afternoon winds is really dangerous. The fuel moisture content in the grasses and trees is as low as ever. A discarded cigarette could start something and it would be easy for that something to flare up and get out of control quickly. Things could change extremely quickly. It is scary. A storm with dry lightning is really frightening.”
Safety officials in the county have been meeting regularly to discuss emergency operations and possible evacuation plans. Their main message is that communication is important and everyone should be prepared now in case something dramatic happens in the future.
Gunnison County Sheriff Rick Besecker and County Emergency Manager Scott Morrill are warning residents to be prepared. In a letter to the community, the two emphasize that people should be thinking about what to do in case a wildfire does start in the area.
“The safety of you and your family is your responsibility. Develop an evacuation plan for you and your family and actively practice the plan,” they suggest. “Be aware of what is going on around you. Do not wait for someone else to tell you to evacuate. If you think you are in danger, take it upon yourself to evacuate.”
Crested Butte Fire Chief Ric Ems just asks everyone to keep doing what they’re doing. “People seem to be aware and they are being careful,” he said. “That’s important and what is keeping the area fire-free. Don’t be careless and if you see someone starting a campfire or being careless, let them know and let us know.”
If a fire does start, Martin said communication is the first priority. He said if the town siren goes off, tune into the local radio stations or the town e-alerts for information. “If we have a fire event, we’ll be focused on personal safety,” he said. “The first part of that is communication. If that happens, we hope people will be prepared. We will have plans in place for an evacuation and transportation and a gathering point. But it will be up to the individuals to be prepared. Honestly, we won’t have the time or manpower to deal with someone else’s pets, for example. So just give it some thought now and be prepared. Work with your neighbors and have a plan.
“It is dangerous out there,” Martin continued. “Fire is one thing but dense smoke is also a hazard. We hope nothing happens but it is better to be ready.”
“We haven’t had people doing anything stupid,” added Spritzer. “That’s good. It tells me people are getting the message and understand the severity of the situation. If something starts, it could quickly become uncontrollable. That would be the end of tourism and a lot of things up here. People can come here now and enjoy themselves without a campfire. We’re under a red flag warning and we need to be careful.”
The safety officials will meet again on Thursday, June 28 to discuss whether to adjust the fire restrictions. Spritzer says he keeps an eye on the long-range forecast. For both Crested Butte and Gunnison, the call is for temperatures in the 80s and low humidity.
“People just need to use their head and we can all hope for the best,” he summarized.