by Rick Langenberg:
With blazes igniting across the state and conditions approaching a super dangerous level, the Teller County Commissioners have enacted the first Stage One fire ban of the season. Shortly after this announcement last Thursday, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper issued a state-wide prohibition against open burning and fireworks.
These restrictions prohibit any open campfires, explosives and fireworks (except commercial shows), along with the firing of model rockets and burning of irrigation ditches. It does permit outdoor smoking and campfires in designated fire rings, charcoal and gas grills and outdoor welding or cutting, as long as proper safety precautions are taken. However, if the conditions worsen, the county could enact even tougher rules, such as those that ban outdoor smoking. The Stage One ban measure was recommended by Emergency Management Director Steve Steed and Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger.
On the upside, Steed stated that Teller has fared better than previous years regarding moisture levels And from a statistical standpoint, he noted that Teller has been one of the least-impacted counties in the state for a devastating summer that has already featured several fires rivaling the Hayman blaze of 2002. The High Park fire in northern Colorado has already torched nearly 200 homes, the biggest fire-related property loss ever recorded in the state. Steed warned the commissioners and civic leaders that conditions of “severe fire dangers” now confront the local area. He also lauded the work of first responders across the county. “Their response has been phenomenal,” said the emergency management director, who cited their work in squashing about a dozen fires in recent weeks, most of which have been doused in the early stages. Still, he noted that authorities need help from the citizens in bracing for a potentially disastrous summer. As a result, both he and Ensminger proposed enacting a Stage One ban, which is generally the first official step in signaling the red alert button. They didn’t get any arguments from the commissioners or from members of the audience. Jim Ignatius, the chairman of the Teller County Commissioners, however, cautioned that fire bans are one of the most controversial actions the board deals with every summer. According to the chairman, opinions are widely mixed on this subject, with some residents urging more restrictions and even tougher penalties for violators, while some see this as hurting business and impacting property owners. “We do it with empirical data,” said Ignatius, who assured the audience that the county’s fire situation is reviewed weekly. “This data is looked at collectively.” In a joking fashion, Ensminger immediately interrupted Ignatius and told him this review now occurs on a daily basis. Ignatius stressed that no matter what action the county takes, wildfires can’t be eliminated. “Fire is needed up here,” said the commission chairman in describing the overall ecosystem and ways to create a healthy forest. “Our goal is to have it under control.” And with a county that is on the forefront of trimming heavily forested areas, the chairman believes the county’s fire dangers have been significantly reduced compared to other areas. Resident Deborah McKown asked bout the impact of higher fines. According to county officials, Teller now assesses fines at the maximum level permitted under state law for violating a fire ban, with the first offense amounting to a $100 penalty and a third offense leading to a $1,000 fine. However, they cautioned that it is still up to a judge to impose the fines. According to Ensminger, the county is seeing an increase in enforcement action. Fire update Fire ban or not, the county officials are still worried about a repeat of another Hayman disaster, in the wake of the 10th anniversary of this historic blaze that scorched nearly 140,000 acres in Teller and several other counties.
On Thursday, firefighters battled a huge blaze, the Andrews fire, two miles west of Lake George that grew to 40 acres. This is the second fire along the Teller/Park county border in the last week. Crews, including 10 smokejumpers from Grand Junction, joined the fight in the afternoon. Altogether , about 140 firefighters were on the scene. U.S. Forest Service officials believe the fire was started by lightning. Initially, two fire crews and seven engines from the U.S. Forest Service and the Lake George Fire Department battle the blaze. Volunteer evacuations were recommended earlier in the day for people within a mile of the fire. The actual blaze was located about four miles northwest of Camp Alexander, a boy scouts camp that features troops from throughout the region. Officials reported much progress on Thursday and Friday in fighting the fire. The reports of the Andrews fire created a little extra tension at last week’s Teller County Commissioners meeting. If any doubt remained regarding the need for a fire ban, the reports of the Andrews blaze removed any skeptical opinions. Besides this blaze, report circulated of another smaller fire in the county. But that fire was quickly put out, according to county officials. Although Teller officials have had a few political differences with Hickenlooper on such issues as gaming taxes, Ignatius lauded the governor’s new approach towards battling large-scale fires. He stated that now the governor has favored ways to utilize as many resources as possible in the early stages of big fires. As a result, Ignatius stated that this alleviates much of the financial strain for counties. In some ways, he stated that the new approach mirrors the way Teller now handles emergency management operations with a more centralized focus.