County Doubles Fines For Fire Ban Violators

Rick Langenberg

02/16/2012

If you get caught violating the county’s fire ban, plan to open up your pocketbook big time.

But if you own agriculturally-zoned property and want to burn slash or trash for fuel mitigation or economic reasons, don’t look for any big changes or worry about Big Brother lingering over your shoulder, except when a county-wide ban is issued.

Last week, the Teller County Commissioners adopted the initial reading of a new law that basically reaffirms its stern regulations regarding open fire bans and handling burn permits.  The ordinance was prompted by legislation enacted by the state last year and by a citizen inquiry.  Also, county leaders took the opportunity to again stress the fact that wildfires are the number one hazardous threat facing the region.

The end result is a proposed law that clarifies the county rules regarding fire bans, which will probably be enacted later this spring, and its permitting process for burning trash, debris and performing other related agricultural duties. In one of the biggest changes, the new rules call for a hefty increase in fines for violators.  Under the new schedule, the first offense of a fire ban amounts to a fine of $100, with the third offense leading to penalties of $1,000 per incident. This represents a doubling of the current fine schedule.

But in explaining the new law, Steve Steed, the director of emergency management in Teller County, stressed that the government isn’t trying to generate fines.  “It is not something we are using as a hammer,” said Steed. In 2011, he reported that county officials only issued two citations, and has tried to educate residents and visitors about the dangers they can create in doing open fires during restricted times. The need for higher fines was prompted by an inquiry by resident Adrienne Pohrte, who attends many commissioner meetings.  She has urged the county to increase penalties for violators. Steed also told the commissioners that the new law clarifies better the permitting process for burn permits and obtaining exemptions from current regulations. He emphasized that the county wants to work with people who own agricultural lands. “We have always recognized the importance of working with our agricultural partners,” said Steed.  “We have always had a permitting process.”

Jim Ignatius, the chairman of the Teller County Commissioners, agreed. “We are trying to promote fuel mitigation,” said Ignatius.  He noted that a good portion of the law outlines how property owners can seek permission to burn slash and trash on their land. Also, he believes the county has gotten more pro-active in warning residents and motorists of prescribed burns. According to Steed, the county has obtained great cooperation “ninety percent of the time” from local residents and private property owners.

Still, officials say they need more defined regulations in place. “We get flooded with tourists,” warned Ignatius, who worries about the lack of knowledge visitors may have about the county’s situation.  As a result, he cited the importance of having a more definitive, updated law on the books.  The commissioners passed the new fire ban and burn permit ordinance by a 2-0 vote.  It will become an official within the next two months, pending any written or public objections. Regardless of the new law, county officials say they must brace themselves for the prospects of a dry season and the reality of more bans.  A state-wide fund the county has relied on in the past for assistance in combating major wildfires is drying up. Consequently, if the county experiences a blaze like the Navaho fire of last summer, they could get hit with a $500,000 bill.

In other action last week, the commissioners got a dose of better economic news.  Teller County Treasurer Bob Campbell reported that his agency’s total caseload of foreclosures is about 30 percent down from the previous year. He estimated the foreclosure total, based on cases filed in the treasurer’s office, consists of about 210 properties. On the downside, Campbell admits he has heard reports of another surge in foreclosure activity and warned the commissioners that Teller is still not over the recession hump. In other reports, Ignatius told the commissioners that the Pikes Peak Area Council of Government has received an infusion of millions of dollars of funds for transportation. This will result in better enhancement along I-25 in Colorado Springs, and especially around the Fillmore exchange.  None of the improvements, though, are planned for Teller County.