by Rick Langenberg:
(Related Cover Story)
With catastrophic blazes raging across the Pikes Peak region and state, the Teller County Commissioners wasted little time last week in enacting a Stage One fire ban.
This action is fairly consistent with burning prohibitions initiated by the U.S. Forest Service on public and private lands in the Pike and San Isabel forests and earlier by the city of Cripple Creek. In essence, these restrictions outlaw any type of open campfires, trash burning and igniting fireworks, but it does permit residents and visitors to use charcoal or gas grills under certain restrictions. In addition, outdoor smoking is still allowed in designated areas or away from flammable materials.
Commission Vice-Chairman Norm Steen, while supporting the ban, questioned if the county should include more details to assure that residents exercise extra caution, such as when using charcoal grills. But his fellow peers and the staff indicated that these emergency ordinances typically don’t focus on too many specific details and that residents are quite aware of the current, dangerous conditions. “You have to be smart about it,” said County Administrator Sheryl Decker, when explaining the overall sentiment of most citizens in complying with fire bans and when using grills and other outdoor cooking devices.
Teller County Emergency Management Director Steve Steed indicated this may just be the starting point in local efforts to prepare for the fire season with stricter restrictions. He told the commissioners that the county is getting tougher in imposing fines for people who violate these bans. The emergency manager said his office would try to get the fire ban message out with the help of highway electronic message boards and the local media.
And with the fire conditions worsening, the fate of July 4th celebrations is now up in the air. For the second consecutive year, city and county officials are going to have to make some tough decisions about forthcoming Independence Day displays, which typically serve as the main kick-off of the summer season. The commissioners commented that it’s too early to make any determinations regarding upcoming fireworks shows.
Shortly after the commissioners issued a Stage One ban in the unincorporated sections of the county, the region’s fire scare hit home with a five-acre blaze, north of Cripple Creek off Teller One near Cripple Creek Mountain Estates. Crews from Cripple Creek, Victor, Divide and the Northeast Teller district responded to fight the blaze, which resulted in a partial road closure.
Emergency responders also received an air drop. No structures were lost.
This marked the second fire in this part of the county in less than 24 hours. Another fire occurred off Teller One in the Four Mile area, but was doused shortly after it ignited. As a result, Cripple Creek earlier in the week initiated a Stage Two fire ban, which poses even tougher restrictions than the Teller and Forest Service actions.
Although conditions aren’t nearly as bad locally as the Black Forest area in Colorado Springs—the site of a major blaze resulting in nearly 500 scorched homes and two deaths– Steed didn’t present an overly optimistic depiction of the local fire situation during a brief presentation at last week’s commissioners meeting. He compared fire conditions to the extreme danger zone of previous years. “We are mirroring exactly where we have been for the last three or four years,” said Steed. And ironically, these dire conditions come in the wake of a fairly wet spring.
According to Steed, the scariest element of the latest fire assaults is that the blazes are being triggered by high winds and extremely hot weather and are jumping from tree to tree, instead of originating from fossil fuels. “They are going up like Roman candles,” said Steed, in explaining the super-fast fire movement and the devastation of trees. “It burned hot and fast. It is just unbelievable,” said the emergency manager, in describing the Black Forest blaze and the smaller fires in Teller.
Both he and Commission Chairman Dave Paul cited the Black Forest terrain as extremely difficult to defend. Also, Paul, who said he is quite familiar with Black Forest, noted that this area hasn’t progressed much in form of fire mitigation. Several local fire departments, though, assisted in the battle against the devastating Black Forest blaze last week, including Cripple Creek, Divide and Northeast Teller.
Steed, who has ties in Canon City, also got quite emotional when talking about the Royal Gorge fire near Canon City, resulting in the destruction of a major tourist attraction and many associated structures. “We lost a major economic anchor,” said Steed. “Two hundred people have lost their jobs.” And when it comes to Teller County, Steed cautioned residents and officials to remain vigilant.
With the huge fire disasters striking Colorado, he cited limited resources as the biggest challenge local firefighters will now face. As a result, local agencies may be on their own when battling blazes of five acres or smaller. “Resources are stretched very thin,” said Steed. “You are going to have to compete (for resources). We need to do everything we can.”