County officials: No end in sight for fire ban, Fines may increase for violating restrictions

Despite the prospects of wetter weather this month, with the possibility of more afternoon showers, Teller officials have no intention of lifting a Stage Two fire ban anytime soon.

As a result, residents won’t be allowed to light any open campfires, charcoal grills, or fireworks, partake in any outdoor smoking (with some exceptions in local municipalities), do trash burning or run a chainsaw on their property in the near future.

And if they violate this ban, the financial consequences are quite severe. And if people want to complain about these restrictions, then open their eyes and face reality.

These messages were relayed loud and clear last week by Teller County Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius and Emergency Management Director Steven Steed. “These are extreme conditions,” said Ignatius. He described the current state of public and private lands in the Teller and Pikes Peak region as the most prone to triggering wildfires since 2002. “We are in pre- Hayman conditions,” stated Steed who gave little indication of seeking to relinquish or soften this ban in the near future. “This is a very serious condition we are in.” Steed informed the public that the region and state is getting invaded by daily fires.

He noted that it would take a considerable amount of monsoon rain patterns for conditions to return to a normal state of moisture for the Teller high country.

“We are very justified,” said Steed, in describing details of the ban. “There was a rational behind that.”

However, not everyone has been impressed by the county’s Stage Two rules. Teller was one of the first entities in the region to enact rules of this magnitude. Stage Two restrictions have only been enacted locally on several occasions in the last 10 years. They were first imposed during the devastating Hayman fire of 2002 that scorched 140,000 acres and torched more than 100 homes.

According to Ignatius, the commissioners have received some strongly worded e-mails by people, who have accused the county of overkill in its Stage Two action. The county has especially come under fire for outlawing chainsaw use and prohibiting outdoor smoking.

But according to Steed, the county has adopted rules that best protect the safety of citizens, while abiding by common sense. For example, both Steed and Ignatius noted that the county recently modified the ban to permit gas and propane stoves and heaters, since these units are equipped with proper fire-wise protection measures. They noted that many chain saws don’t have the same fire defense mechanisms.

Plus, they stressed that the current restrictions are on par with other governments.

Last week, the regional office of the U.S. Forest Service joined fire ban momentum by enacting Stage Two restrictions in the Pike and San Isabel forests on the eve of July 4th celebrations and camping trips. In addition, similar bans have been enacted in nearby counties and jurisdictions.

Moreover, government and public land officials are telling people that the time for warnings has screeched to a halt, with violators facing heavy fines, such as a $500 to $1,000 minimum penalty. Steed told the commissioners that he has even noticed advertisements in the local media in certain counties that stress the reality of “no more warnings.”

And at last week’s commissioners meeting, several residents from the Florissant and Divide region, who represent the Teller County Tea Party and other organizations, urged county officials to increase the penalties for violating the ban. They noted that this would convey a stronger message.

Deborah McKown of Florissant told the commissioners that many county residents fully support the effort of Steed’s office in monitoring the fire dangers. Contrary to certain e-mails the county commissioners may have received objecting to aspects of the ban, she believes that most homeowners are on their side.

The commissioners said they appreciated their support. But when it comes to increasing fines for violating a fire ban, both the commissioners and Administrator Sheryl Decker cautioned that a definite public process would have to be followed, with scheduled hearings before the planning commission and the commissioners.

And due to the timing and seriousness of the current fire season, Decker said this action would not take top priority until Steed would have more time to review the fire ban fine structure. “Right now, he is worried about fighting fires,” said Decker.