by Rick Langenberg:
Photo by CR Chambers
Due to more normal July weather patterns, Teller County has followed in the footsteps of neighboring agencies and the U.S. Forest Service in lifting some of the more stern regulations on the books against open burning and outdoor smoking. However, county officials have made it clear that the region is far from out of the woods regarding fire dangers.
Teller, along with most other jurisdictions, such as El Paso and Park counties, has now been placed on a more traditional Stage One fire ban. With Stage One restrictions, outdoor smoking is permitted along with the use of chain saws, outdoor welding, proper barbecue devices and designated campfires. The change, declared at last week’s county commissioners meeting, was made following much scientific data regarding new moisture levels and weather patterns. Although the last week hasn’t generated the rain levels that many officials would like to see, Emergency Management Director Steve Steed described much more humid conditions than several weeks ago, when fires raged across Colorado. According to Steed, the conditions in the forest areas have been changed from “high to extreme (fire dangers) to moderate to high.” “We have had a significant downturn in the fire danger,” added Steed, in describing recent rains and more humid patterns. Still, he cautioned that the region is suffering from “below average precipitation levels,” capped by an extremely dry winter and spring. More importantly, the emergency management chief along with the sheriff authorities believe the time is right to lift the Stage Two restrictions, which pose rather strict regulations. These rules are one step short of shutting down many recreational areas in the region entirely.
An important aspect of this decision is based on the actions of neighboring jurisdictions. With Stage One restrictions, open campfires are banned on any private or public lands in Teller County and throughout the state. Also, residents and visitors can’t use fireworks, explosives, or fire model rockets or burn irrigation ditches. And if property owners have burn permits, that doesn’t qualify as an excuse. They must obtain special permission from the sheriff’s office to use these permits. Stage One restrictions permit outdoor smoking and the use of barbecue devices, such as charcoal and gas grills, as long as special precautions are exhibited. The same is true with chain saw and outdoor welding use.
Good Team Work Despite the devastation of the recent Waldo Canyon fire, Teller officials are happy with the response work exhibited by local authorities and residents. During last week’s regular meeting, Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius lauded the team work associated with combating the fire and believes the frequent emergency response tests have paid off. “It was a test of everything we have practiced,” said Ignatius. He touted the establishment of an incident command and emergency operations center, and the organizing of daily meetings with citizens and updating of regular information on their website and through the Nixle alert system. On the downside, Ignatius admitted that Teller County didn’t get much television media coverage. “There were a lot of people up here who were wondering why we weren’t in front of the cameras,” said the commission chairman. But he cites the fact that the fire seriously devastated parts of Colorado Springs in torching nearly 400 homes and destroying seveal upscale neighborhoods. According to Ignatius, that became the focus of the media coverage, following the fire’s sudden turn over Queen’s Canyon and Rampart Range Reservoir and into the west side of Colorado Springs. As a result, he said some didn’t realize the behind the scenes work of many local leaders, who were actually escorted down the Ute Pass daily to attend press and forest service briefings in Colorado Springs, and then drove back the same afternoon to convey this information to authorities in Teller County for daily meetings. In fact, the entourage of Teller officials up and down U.S. Hwy. 24 marked some of the few vehicles permitted on this road during the fire. “I can see why they kept the road closed,” said Ignatius, who like most authorities lauded the work of volunteer fire departments in succeeding in keeping the fire from jumping the highway. Similar sentiments were echoed by Steed, who said he wouldn’t have changed anything regarding how local authorities responded to the fire. But that said, he contended that the spree of fire incidents in Teller and Park in recent weeks has impacted county staff members significantly. Besides the Waldo Canyon blaze, Teller authorities had to deal with the Springer fire and the constant threats from an alleged arsonist, who reportedly has triggered more than 20 fires in the area. “We have had a lot of overtime hours,” admitted Steed.
As for comments, from the public, Steed stated that Teller officials received minimal complaints and these mostly dealt with inconveniences they incurred during this period. According to Steed, Teller is now seeking federal assistance, as part of the national disaster declaration for El Paso and Larimer counties. It is still unclear if these monies would benefit local businesses and residents. Steed said last week the county was in the process of trying to seek federal impact dollars. For the better part of a one-week period, Teller County was basically closed for business due to the Waldo Canyon fire and the shutdown of a vital link of U.S. Hwy. 24. This had big financial impacts on commerce. For example, the positive gains that Cripple Creek casinos have made this year were completely wiped out due to the closure of the highway, according to sources from the Cripple Creek casino industry.