Summit County considers changes to fire restrictions |

Summit County considers changes to fire restrictions

A sign on North Main Street in Breckenridge states the fire danger level as "very high" in August 2019. Summit County is considering making changes to the way it enacts fire restrictions this summer.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Summit County officials are considering making changes to the way fire restrictions are implemented in the county, including possible updates to the year-round fire code and the criteria used to enact restrictions.

The Summit Board of County Commissioners discussed the topic during a work session Tuesday, March 16, hoping to simplify the restrictions to make them more understandable and consistent for county residents and visitors.

In May 2019, Summit County joined into an intergovernmental agreement with the county’s towns to unify language in fire restrictions throughout the area and to implement new criteria that could be used to enact restrictions sooner. The move came after the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire, which broke out as officials were in talks to put restrictions in place. Hoping to become more proactive in preventing fires, commissioners tasked the Office of Emergency Management with putting together the Policy on Wildfire work group — composed of representatives with local fire districts, the U.S. Forest Service, the Upper Colorado River Fire Management Unit and other stakeholders — to lead the effort updating the restrictions.

For the past two years, Summit County and its towns have operated under year-round fire restrictions — what most communities would call Stage 1 restrictions — which prohibit things like fireworks, tracer ammunition, unpermitted fires and more.

During the meeting Tuesday, officials voiced a desire to abolish the year-round fire restrictions and instead return to a more traditional model where the county commissioners would approve Stage 1 and Stage 2 restrictions. In order to make the change, the county would have to amend its fire code and would ask the towns to all jump on board so that restrictions stay uniform.

“A lot of that stuff in the fire code now that’s perpetual would then just be part of the resolution enacting the Stage 1 fire restrictions,” Summit County Emergency Management Director Brian Bovaird said. “And one important thing for us, and the idea of the (intergovernmental agreement) with the towns, is that the language would be the same and the policies would be the same for every jurisdiction. When you’re in Summit County, you don’t have to know whether you’re in unincorporated Summit County or the town of Frisco. It’s all the same.”

In addition to some year-round restrictions not making sense with a few feet of snow on the ground, officials also are hoping the change makes the restrictions less confusing for community members.

“What we found last year was we’re always in Stage 1, and that’s a hard message to communicate then when the Forest Service is going to move into Stage 1,” County Manager Scott Vargo said.

It’s unclear how, if at all, the potential change could impact permitting for backyard campfires.

It’s also unclear whether the commissioners will move forward into wildfire season with one or two sets of criteria for enacting fire restrictions. Each year, the county enters into an annual operating plan for wildfire operations with state and federal partners, which includes criteria used to determine when fire restrictions should go into place. The agreement outlines the same criteria currently used by the Forest Service nationwide; however, Summit County also has a second and more stringent set of criteria that can be used to enter into restrictions when other entities aren’t.

The community has seen this play out before. The county entered Stage 2 restrictions last October while the White River National Forest remained in Stage 1. Among the Summit-specific criteria that differ from the Forest Service, the county uses a lower energy-release component threshold and allows for special circumstances to enact restrictions over heavy visitor periods like Fourth of July.

However, officials said that having multiple restriction levels in the county at once can create confusion for community members. There also were worries about potentially damaging relationships with the Forest Service by playing with a different set of rules.

No decision was made on the matter, but Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons proposed bringing Forest Service representatives to the table at a future meeting to see if some solution could be reached.

“I just think currently we don’t have enough of the picture to probably make the decision that we want to make today,” Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said. “So I think we need input from the towns, and we’re going to have to talk to the Forest Service and understand pros and cons from their side, as well.”

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