Summit County firefighters again face ‘epidemic’ of unattended campfires as wildfire burns
September 21, 2017
While firefighters were battling the Tenderfoot 2 Fire near Dillon on Tuesday, a pair of hikers saw smoke coming from a nearby trail.
At its source, they found a 25-by-25 foot fire burning among garbage in brush and downed trees, spreading quickly in the high winds.
The couple called in the fire, attempting to keep it under control by shuttling water back and forth from a nearby stream with their water bottles and coolers.
Firefighters from the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District came to the remote spot on all-terrain vehicles provided by the Summit County Sheriff's Office. Fortunately, they were able to douse the blaze before it got out of control.
It was a near miss but also a maddeningly routine aspect of the job for Summit County firefighters, who on bad days might have to tamp down more than a half-dozen abandoned campfires — even while there are wildfires sending up plumes of smoke visible for miles.
In early July, for instance, a helicopter battling the Peak 2 Fire near Breckenridge had to be diverted briefly to a small fire near Bald Mountain. Officials said it had grown from an unattended campfire, one of several reported the same day that sweeping fire restrictions were put in place across Summit County.
"As earlier in the summer and around the time of the Peak 2 Fire, the careless handling of campfires has again reached epidemic levels, and area fire crews are continually being dispatched to unattended campfires," RWB chief Jim Keating said. "We ask that campers, hunters and hikers be cautious as fire conditions in certain areas and during certain times of day are extremely dangerous. Discarded smoking materials or a single ember can spell disaster of major proportions."
Part of the rash of calls during big fires likely has to do with peoples' heightened awareness and concern when they see smoke, as was the case with the hikers on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, any spate of abandoned or partially extinguished campfires is a major concern for firefighters, particularly during times of high winds and low humidity. Fire danger is currently as moderate, but officials warn against complacency.
"Today is extremely prime for campfires getting out of control," Keating said. "The winds are very strong, the temperatures are in the seventies and the humidity is low. If there are embers out there they could easily erupt into something huge."
Unlike the days immediately after the Peak 2 Fire broke out, there is no burn ban in effect. It's not clear, however, if that would make much of a difference.
"Even when we put a burn ban on around the Peak 2 Fire it didn't make a bit of difference in slowing things down," Keating said.
Part of the problem is that the message doesn't always get to the right people. Locals might closely monitor conditions and honor burn bans, but passers-through could have no idea they are in place.
"We put out dozens of unattended campfires a day, so it's just one of those things where we've got a lot of visitors coming to the county that aren't hearing our message," U.S. Forest Service deputy district ranger Adam Bianchi told a recent meeting of the Forest Health Task Force. "That's the type of stuff that's happening constantly. I don't have an answer for how we get to the point where we're not having it."
One member of the task force suggested giving volunteer forest rangers informational pamphlets they could pass out on the trails warning people about fire danger.
The forest, however, is hard to police, particularly in places like Summit County where many people live, cook and make campfires in the woods.
Just days before the Peak 2 Fire — and while a 100-acre wildfire was burning north of Summit County — Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue extinguished a small blaze at a squatter's camp in the woods near Keystone.
The bottom line, fire managers say, is that even as temperatures cool and fire danger is listed as low, life in the High Country demands constant fire awareness.
"Until we have permanent snow on the ground, we can't let our guard down," LDFR chief Jeff Berino said. "In the past we've had fires in October and even early November. So until there's snow on the ground, we're not going to rest."
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