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County on the edge of Stage 2 fire restrictions

Decision coming Thursday. Local fire officials watching weather closely

By Mark Reaman

It appears likely the Gunnison County commissioners will enact Stage 2 fire restrictions for the county this week following the expected lead of the U.S. Forest Service and the Gunnison National Forest. An official decision will be made at a special meeting of the commissioners scheduled for Thursday, June 14 at noon. Such a move would essentially ban all outdoor fires in the county.

Local fire experts communicate regularly about the fire situation and have been evaluating whether to request the Gunnison County commissioners enact Stage 2 fire restrictions this week. A Wednesday afternoon conversation between representatives of the USFS and the Gunnison Basin Wildfire council ended with the conclusion that it would be prudent to ask the commissioners to move to the tighter restrictions.

Since May 29 the county has been under Stage 1 fire restrictions and the long spell of hot and dry weather have many people on edge as fires have hit the other parts of the state.

In a good news-bad news quandary, timing is everything. The bad news is it is really hot and dry and the entire valley is susceptible to fire danger. Smoke from ongoing fires in the southwest part of the state has inundated the valley. The good news is that the general weather forecasts are calling for a good chance of rain this weekend into next week. But that storm could be preceded by conditions that bring heat lightning.

“It is an extremely dry situation,” said Gunnison fire marshal Dennis Spritzer. “We haven’t had any moisture in a really long time and the last time we had a storm it brought lightning, which resulted in a few small fire starts. Luckily we got right on them so they didn’t amount to much. But we need more than a little rain. We need the monsoons and the soakers.”

Crested Butte Fire Protection District operations chief Rob Weisbaum agreed. “We are actually doing better than the southern part of the state, but that’s not saying much. Generally it looks like I-70 is the demarcation line. The Gunnison Basin is at 34 percent snow equivalent, which is one of the lowest in the state. Although the north end of the valley is looking green, it is still crunchy and dangerous. I just spoke with the Forest Service and they stated our moisture content up here was at 8 percent. The normal range is 14 to 20 percent.”

Stage 1 fire restrictions have been in effect for several weeks and they will remain, with local fire experts meeting weekly to discuss whether to move the restrictions to Stage 2. Under the current restrictions, no open campfires are allowed. Fires are permitted only in steel-lined fire pits, the type you see at formal Forest Service campgrounds. A ring of rocks does not cut it. Campers are required to attend all fires and must make sure they are completely out before leaving. Weisbaum said a fire should “be cold to the touch. I can’t stress that enough. People need to use common sense in these situations.”

Stage 1 restrictions also prohibit all fireworks and smoking is allowed only inside a vehicle or basically in the middle of a paved parking lot. Chainsaws being used outside must have a certified spark arrestor and no welding with an open flame is permitted.

“Stage 1 restrictions were implemented at the end of May and I would anticipate going to Stage 2 relatively soon, maybe the middle of June, if we don’t get some significant moisture,” said Weisbaum. “It will take more than an afternoon rainstorm. I heard that a small fire was started in Gunnison when someone was mowing a lawn. It is dry out there.”

A small fire on public lands was started last week in Gunnison County about nine miles from the city of Gunnison and smokejumpers were called in to control the fire. They did so quickly and it was contained immediately.

Stage 2 restrictions would prohibit all outside burning. Stage 3 is even more severe and would ban people from entering the U.S. Forests. That was implemented in the San Juan National Forest as of this week.

The entire San Juan National Forest (SJNF) was closed to visitors and most employees beginning Tuesday. Officials said they were shutting down the 1.8 million acres of wilderness to “protect natural resources and public safety.”

As of Wednesday, the 416 Fire (near Durango), which started in the national forest on June 1, has already scorched more than 26,000 acres.

“Fire danger on the SJNF remains very high due to exceptional drought and fuel conditions,” the Forest Service said in a press release.

The closure will remain in effect “until the forest receives sufficient moisture to improve conditions,” according to the statement.

All campgrounds, day-use areas, roads and trails will be closed within the national forest. Exemptions might be granted on a case-by-case basis with written permission from the Forest Service. The forest area covers a large section of southwestern Colorado across nine counties.

Weisbaum and Spritzer said the local fire council is in good contact and meets weekly to discuss the changing situation.

Locally, if the restrictions are changed, you can see updates on the Gunnison 911 or the CBFPD Facebook pages.

“We are not in a great spot but people are being careful,” said Spritzer. “They seem aware of the dangerous situation. We haven’t had anything start from a campfire thus far and that says something about how serious people understand the situation.”

“People need to be vigilant and so far they have been added Weisbaum. “In that regard, we’ve been really lucky.”

Everyone is asked to be aware of the latest fire restrictions. That can be found on the home page of Gunnison County at www.gunnisoncounty.org. Locals can also go to that web page and sign up for emergency alerts.

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