Tinder dry valley leads to Stage 2 fire restrictions

Mt. CB fireworks are off. Gunnison display still on…

Five minutes of afternoon showers like Crested Butte experienced Tuesday and Wednesday will not eliminate the extreme fire danger in the county. Not to be a nag, but the lack of any measurable precipitation in the area since early last May is having a huge impact and presenting a very dangerous situation for the valley. Pretty much any and all fire has been outlawed in the county as Stage 2 fire restrictions were imposed by the county on Thursday.



Town staff will be presenting an “emergency” ordinance at their meeting Tuesday. The language will be very similar, if not identical, to the county restrictions.
The Fourth of July fireworks display in Mt. Crested Butte has been cancelled and will not be part of this year’s Mt. Crested Butte festivities. The rivers are running as low as ever and water calls are being made throughout the region. Water districts are hiring enforcement officers to ensure a consistent water supply. The idea of a huge wildfire starting and spreading throughout the dry forests in the county is very real and local safety personnel are preparing for such a situation and possible evacuation.
“The concerns are evident,” Gunnison County Sheriff Rick Besecker said. “It rained just a little today, but you go outside and you can’t prove it. We’re just an ounce beyond spontaneous combustion I believe, and I think that going to Stage 2 restrictions is absolutely necessary in every corner of our county.”
The most extreme drought in decades is impacting every segment of the community. The local ranchers are feeling it as the hay crop dries out and they have to sell some of their cattle early. Recreationists see the dusty trails and crunchy meadows. Blue Mesa looks like a half-empty water glass. Tourists are banned from having a campfire, even in sanctioned campgrounds.
“I haven’t seen anything like this since we moved here in the 70s,” said Mt. Crested Butte Town Manager Joe Fitzpatrick. “It is scary and we all need to be careful. As for the fireworks, it wasn’t even a discussion. The conditions are so extremely dry and the fire danger so high, it’s not worth the risk.”
Mt. Crested Butte Police Chief Hank Smith agreed. “We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said, “but I can’t emphasize enough how careful we all have to continue to be.
The fire danger is very real and all you have to do is look at what’s happening around the state to see what could happen here. This is serious.”
“Everyone should be prepared and ready to deal if something drastic happens.”
Gunnison Basin Wildfire Council chairman Dennis Spritzer said Stage 2 restrictions mean there should be no “solid fuel fires of any type, even in campgrounds. You can still grill on a propane grill but not on charcoal. There should be absolutely no fire in the county. We’re really worried about the weather forecast that includes some possibility of lightning.”
Spritzer said that in regard to area fuel moisture, “We’re at 4.4 percent and that’s an average valley-wide. If you look at kiln-dried lumber, it’s 10 to 12 percent.”
Safety personnel recommend residents have an evacuation plan in their mind in case the area is struck by fire. “Know what it is that you need and want to take with you,” advised Smith. “Don’t be scrambling at the last second. We will be busy organizing the actual evacuation and we have to play that by ear depending on how it happens. But people need to be responsible for themselves, their families and their pets.”
County Emergency Manager Scott Morrill said the state is getting pounded. “We’ve got some of these fire managers with 20 or 30 years under their belt saying they’ve never seen fires act like this.”
The water situation has resulted in the Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District hiring an enforcement officer. The district doesn’t want people overusing the available water and July is normally the district’s busiest month.
“Our main concern is bumping up against our capacity to produce enough water on a daily basis given the conditions,” explained District Manager Frank Glick. “We take primarily from the East River and we need the ability to treat and store enough water for daytime use so we are cracking down.”
The district is responsible for water in Mt. Crested Butte and Meridian Lake. The enforcement officer will be patrolling both locations to ensure consumers aren’t using more than allowed. Currently people can irrigate their lawns in the early mornings and evenings but not in the daytime. If things get tighter, irrigation could be limited to every other day.
On top of its ability to fill the town reservoir from Coal Creek, Crested Butte has some good water rights in Lake Irwin. In fact, the town owns 367 acre feet at Irwin and last year the town used a total of 418 acre feet. “We’re in pretty good shape,” acknowledged Crested Butte Public Works Director Rodney Due, “but we want to stay conservative and make sure the town water is protected.”
Down in Gunnison, the fireworks have traditionally been launched from Jorgenson Park and the plan is to do so again this year. According to City Manager Ken Coleman, the site is irrigated and wet, as is the ranch behind the park that leads to the open expanse of the airport. “The reasoning for this exception is that it is a very controlled environment,” he explained. “It’s green and in good shape. We’ll be extra vigilant but we are comfortable with the idea and Dennis [Spritzer] has told us he too feels the exemption is appropriate. He’ll make the final call closer to the Fourth but for now, it is on.
“One reason we want to have the fireworks is that we hope putting on a good display will minimize the idea of independent fireworks,” Coleman continued. “We definitely don’t want anyone shooting off their own fireworks.”
Coleman said people would be monitoring the shoot zone to keep everything safe. “Things could still change,” Coleman admitted. “We don’t want to stop the show but we would if conditions warrant. We won’t be stupid about it.”
Good advice for everyone in this current scenario.

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