Growing fire danger has Garfield County officials weighing further restrictions

The growing fire danger in Garfield County has area fire management officials weighing further restrictions to reduce the potential for any human-caused fires.

The situation was punctuated by successive red flag warning days with Monday and Tuesday’s dry, hot and windy weather — and threats from passing thunderstorms over the weekend that produced numerous lightning strikes in the area.

It was a topic of discussion during the public comment portion of the Board of County Commissioners meeting Monday, when several people spoke to the need for more information to help people prevent brush fires before they happen and prepare if a wildfire does occur.

“We need to be working on this now so that if there is a wildfire, we are better prepared,” said Debbie Bruell, Carbondale resident and chair of the Garfield County Democrats.

A pair of residents of the Elk Springs subdivision near Cattle Creek urged the commissioners to enact a fireworks use ban leading up to the Fourth of July holiday, and to also consider banning sales.

The county has banned the use of personal fireworks, even those that can be purchased legally in Colorado, for most of the year, with the exception of the stretch between May 31 and July 5.

But that’s likely to change soon.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, who is the one to recommend such bans, said in a separate interview Monday that he and his emergency management team are gathering information on the fire danger outlook.

“We’re waiting until next week to be more accurate and less guesswork,” he said.

The second week of June is typically when local, state and federal fire officials, working as the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, begin assessing the summer fire season and making forecasts.

As for expanding the fireworks ban to include the three weeks leading up to Independence Day, that question will go before the county commissioners on June 14, Vallario said.

“We are working to get the information and weather forecasts together to see where we are for a possible ban if everything lines up,” he said. “It is looking like that is the direction we should probably go.”

As for banning otherwise legal fireworks sales, including seasonal vendors, county commissioners have been reluctant to do that.

Meanwhile, local fire districts are on high alert as conditions worsen.

The Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District initiated a rapid response late Sunday to a report of a single tree that was smoldering after an apparent lightning strike near the Cedar Ridge Ranch in Missouri Heights.

“It didn’t really get going anywhere, and we were able to contain it quickly,” CRFPD Operations Chief Mike Wagner said.

But crews were standing ready with multiple firefighting apparatus and backup from the neighboring Roaring Fork Fire District in case the fire spread.

Carbondale Fire employs a philosophy “to keep small fires small,” Wagner said.

One of the tactics it uses is to have roving patrols across the sprawling fire district looking for any signs of smoke or potential hazards, and even checking known lightning strike locations from the past day or so, he said.

“It’s something we really believe in, and it’s proven time and again to be effective in keeping small fires small,” Wagner said. “It’s our No. 1 goal, after the safety of the public and us.”

A multi-vehicle response to a single tree on fire might seem like overkill to some, “but we’d rather do that and not have to use them than not have enough and wish we did,” he said.

Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson said his department does not do routine roving patrols. But, after the fire danger last year lingered into the fall as the Grizzly Creek Fire continued to burn, Glenwood Fire did team up with other nearby fire agencies, including Colorado River Fire Rescue (CRFR) to conduct patrols on red flag days in particular.

“When the fire danger starts getting really bad, we do plan on revisiting that and see if we can pull it together again,” Tillotson said.

The Upper Colorado interagency fire management team had the first of its seasonal weekly meetings Tuesday morning to assess the current fire danger and look at possible restrictions on open fires.

No additional restrictions were enacted out of that meeting, CRFR Chief Leif Sackett said.

Before any fire bans are issued, “we look at the science behind it, such as fuel moistures,” he said. “We are talking about it, but no decisions have been made to go into restrictions.”

The Rifle-based fire district did respond to a small brush fire last week near Rifle Middle School, but got it knocked down in short order, Sackett said. The agency also received calls to do smoke checks after area lightning strikes were recorded, he said.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or

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