First Major Blaze Of 2012 Puts Officials On Red Alert

Despite snow storm, fire restrictions may remain in place

by Rick Langenberg


Photos by CR Chambers

     With the fire season off to a fast start, coupled with dry conditions and a lengthy spat of super-hot weather for the springtime, Teller County elected leaders may soon declare their first official, permanent ban against campfires and other related activities.

     A meeting was held among key officials on Tuesday during which a number of options were unveiled.  Teller leaders decided to continue monitoring the weather conditions and plan to meet again early next week.  Despite a snow storm that moved into the area early this week, causing a few weather-related accidents, Teller officials expressed much caution about lifting restrictions against open burning.  At the same time, they didn’t believe that the conditions warranted any type of permanent ban, especially with the arrival of winter-like weather.   

     As of press time Tuesday afternoon, Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger stated that burn restrictions will remain in place unless the region gets walloped with a major storm.  “If we receive six or seven inches of snow tonight, then we might further evaluate the situation and lift the burn restrictions. But it is still pretty dry,” said Ensminger, who acts as the county’s fire marshal. Teller County Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius said officials plan to now meet on a weekly basis to monitor Teller’s fire situation.  “We are going to do pretty much what we did last year,” said Ignatius, in regards to the county’s staunch stance towards fire bans and in scrutinizing precipitation levels.  

     Last week, Teller officials adopted burn restrictions and issued a red flag warning due to the high winds and dangerous conditions.  This temporary measure doesn’t equate to a full-scale ban, but requires property owners with permits to contact county officials prior to doing any open burning.  It does though permit campfires on a limited basis. “We don’t have a ban in place, but we have burn restrictions,” stressed Steven Steed, the director of emergency management for Teller County, in describing the temporary actions taken by the county.  Electric billboard messages along Hwy. 24 also have warned motorists of the pending fire situation. County authorities may decide to initiate a permanent ban, if the conditions get any worse.  Despite Tuesday’s storm, the extended weather forecast calls for much higher temperatures this weekend.  “It has been very dry for the last two years,” said Steed. 

The emergency management director said officials were hoping that the region would receive a lot of precipitation this week based on preliminary forecasts. According to Steed, the county officials and leaders plan to collect more data from the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.  They are also worried about blazes that have already raged throughout the area and state.

West Creek Fire

Local fire crews last week grappled with the first serious blaze of the season as the West Creek Fire scorched nearly seven acres, west of Hwy. 67 on County Road 78 within the old Hayman burn area. By late afternoon March 30, the fire was reported contained and under control. No structures were threatened. According to county officials, the fire was sparked by a down power line.  But the combination of light flashy fuels and old timber slash posed quite a safety challenge for firefighting crews who succeeded in taming a fire that could have turned into an early spring disaster.  The blaze was handled initially by the Teller County Wildland Fire Taskforce and the U.S. Forest Service crews.  They did mop-up operations through last weekend. The fire area will be monitored this week by the Mountain Communities Fire Protection District.

The West Creek blaze may serve as a warning for what many officials see as a difficult fire season.  In fact, last month set a record in the Front Range as the driest March in 124 years, according to officials from the Colorado Climate Center.  Due to the current conditions, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has suspended prescribed burns on state lands.  And the U.S. Forest Service won’t do any scheduled burns in Colorado until the current conditions improve.   

      According to Steed, his office has received mixed opinions regarding actions Teller officials should take. “I have heard from all sides of the spectrum. Some want us to initiate a fire ban right away.  Others have called us and said, ‘what you are doing in declaring a fire ban,’” said Steed. He said an erroneous television media report regarding a full-scale fire ban sparked some complaints. But controversies over fire bans aren’t unusual for Teller County.

Last year, the county declared a fire ban in March, and then rescinded this action around the Memorial Day weekend only to declare an even tougher prohibition in mid-June following the Navaho blaze in the Four Mile area. However, the county encountered much criticism later in the summer from property owners for outlawing chain saw activity and continuing its ban longer than other governing agencies. However, the lengthy fire ban restrictions were heavily supported by the Teller County commissioners, who regarded these measures as a way to protect the region from a future Hayman-like disaster. Steed said the county plans to back up whatever action it takes this year with detailed information.  He said the formal fire season actually begins this week. That’s when the Forest Service starts analyzing the conditions of the Pike National Forest area and makes detailed projections.  County officials also have to be extra cautious due to the fact that emergency funds for handling fires could get seriously reduced this year.

And in an unrelated matter, the Teller County commissioners next week will most likely approve the final reading of a new law, calling for much higher fines for violating bans or fire restrictions.  That is part of a proposed ordinance that sets official guidelines for fire bans and the permitting process for burning trash, debris and performing related clean-up duties on private lands.