Penalties Finalized For Violating Fire Bans

Photo by CR Chambers

by Rick Langenberg:

With wildfire dangers increasing in the high country, Teller County has officially declared war against property owners, tourists and campers who violate burn restrictions and campfire prohibitions. Last week, the county commissioners approved the final reading of a new updated law that increases fines dramatically for delinquent fire-violators and clarifies the permitting process for burning trash, debris and performing related agricultural duties.

With only minor changes from the original proposal submitted in February, the commissioners easily gave the new law, one of only 17 official ordinances adopted by the county, the thumbs-up. “It is a collective effort,” said Steve Steed, the director of emergency management for Teller County, in describing the open fire ban and burn permit rules. “This is a tool we can use.” Although they still have emphasized the importance of public education, both Steed and Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger noted that the tougher penalties serve as a message that the county means business, when it comes to enforcing its regulations regarding fire bans and burn restrictions. Steed stated that the county is now in the second consecutive year of extremely dry and dangerous conditions.

Moreover, he reminded the commissioners that the area has already received a quick dose of potential wildfire horrors, which have already resulted in several fatalities in Colorado. A wildfire in Jefferson County at the end of March became extremely deadly and killed three residents and scorched nearly 30 homes. It is currently under investigation by the governor’s office. The new law increased the fines for violating bans and restrictions from $50 to $100 for a first offense. And when property owners continue to violate these rules, they can face fines up to $1,000 per offense for a third citation. Steed said the new ordinance is mainly designed to set updated rules in place. In a previous meeting in February, county leaders stressed that the new rules aren’t aimed at stopping property owners from burning slash or trash on their land. “We are trying to promote fuel mitigation,” said Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius. He said a good portion of the law outlines the process for obtaining burn permits, and explains when they can’t be used. It also sets the standards for notifying the public regarding fire ban and burn-related restrictions.

The timing of finalizing the new county ordinance couldn’t have been better. The adoption of the updated rules followed comments by Steed regarding the region’s seven-acre wildfire in the Westcreek area in late March. He described the response efforts as outstanding and believes this coordinated approach halted a rerun of a Hayman-like catastrophe. Steed told the commissioners and the public that this blaze could have turned into a major disaster and now serves as a warning for the forthcoming fire season. “It was extremely dangerous,” said Steed. “It is a reminder of what we face.” Steed said the fire, which was sparked by a downed power line and facilitated by light-flashy fuels and old timber slash, is the type that can kill emergency responders without notice. “It was an exceptional job,” said Steed, in complimenting the work of local firefighters, including representatives of the sheriff’s office, a Teller Wildland Task Force and the Forest Service crew. The dangers also were fueled by the fact that the wildfire occurred in the heart of the Hayman burn area, which has experienced problems associated with a lack of trees and vegetation to serve as a buffer. In the last week, the U.S. Forest Service kicked off efforts to plant 146,000 more pine and fir trees to stabilize this wildfire-ravaged mountainside. The extra trees, part of the Hayman reforestation project, will help hold the soil in place, according to Forest Service officials. Steed attributed the amazing response to months of planning and coordination, headed by his office. Since Steed assumed the reins of emergency management for Teller in the summer of 2010, he has taken a much more high profile role than that of previous directors in pre-disaster and emergency planning. “There was a reason it (the Westcreek fire) stayed to seven acres,” added Ignatius, in complimenting the steps taken by Steed. Catamount Center agreement extended In other action, the Teller County Commissioners last week lauded the work done by the Catamount Center, which operates a 177-acre area, near the county’s open space property off Edlowe Road. But at the same time, they urged the group to move a little faster in abiding by county regulations for its future pursuits. By a unanimous vote, the commissioners agreed to extend a development agreement for the Catamount Center for two more years. The Center, which does many environmental and educational pursuits, plans to build approximately 32 cluster housing units on the property for overnight stays and to accommodate its staff. It also wants to make other improvements to its current facilities. However, the commissioners opted not to give the Center more time than currently permitted to finalize its plans and to bring its property up to code.

The current development agreement, which originally was crafted in 1997 and included several extensions, was scheduled to expire early this week. The Catamount Center still hasn’t completed proposed plans for its housing project. “We (the county) need to bring these uses into compliance,” said Senior Planner Lor Pellegrino. In her staff report, the planner cited the lack of progress regarding many commitments the Catamount Center made during its original development agreement. She said the property is not in compliance with county rules. “I know it seems like we have been moving like turtles,” replied Catamount Center Site Manager Gregory Carlson. But he reported that the Catamount Center is moving ahead with design plans for cluster housing units. He described this project as critical to the group and much more time consuming than originally expected. “We want to provide cluster housing for the people we serve,” said Carlson, who reminded the commissioners about the number of local school students who frequent the center for field trips. He questioned the possibility of getting an agreement extended beyond the two-year period, citing concerns about paying more for permit and various fees and repeating the same process in another two years. However, Ignatius, while praising the Catamount Center, stated that they shouldn’t be treated any differently than other property owners, who now must bring their projects up to code with the current county land use codes. He said other land owners are confronted with similar challenges due to the economy. Ignatius also commented that the current partnership between the Catamount Center and Teller County, resulting in a great trail system for the public, has resulted in a project that has received stellar reviews across the state. That said, the board only agreed to a two-year extension for the Catamount Center.