Summit County lifts fire ban as part of concerted Western Slope action |

Summit County lifts fire ban as part of concerted Western Slope action

The aftermath of July's Peak 2 wildfire near Breckenridge can still be seen across acres of burned U.S. Forest Service land, such as here on Miners Creek Trail on July 25. With improving conditions, Summit County joined a handful of Western Slope counties in lifting related area fire restrictions on Tuesday.
Hugh Carey / |

Along with five other Western Slope communities and the White River National Forest, Summit lifted its countywide fire ban Tuesday with formal approval coming at a special Board of County Commissioners afternoon meeting.

The action is also in line with neighboring Clear Creek and Gilpin counties, as well as Boulder County’s decision to take the same step the day before. The lone exception among the Western Slope contingent of Eagle, Pitkin, Mesa and Rio Blanco is Garfield County, which will maintain its existing restrictions at all sites below 8,000 feet of elevation.

“At least for the moment, we’re out of the woods,” said Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District chief Jim Keating. “I wasn’t (supportive) last week, but we got a little bit of moisture and we’re still getting moisture. There’s been a significant decrease of unattended campfires — they’re still happening, but not to the degree they were.”

The open campfire ban went into effect in Summit County after the county commissioners initiated an emergency meeting on July 5 to enact the restrictions shortly after the Peak 2 wildfire in Frisco continued to flare up. Still smoldering, that fire eventually devoured 84 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near Breckenridge over the course of several days and remains at 85 percent containment.

The commissioners took the recommendation of Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons — technically the local fire warden — with support from the area fire chiefs to bring an end to the limitations. Commissioner Dan Gibbs, a certified wildlands firefighter and chair of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildfire advisory committee, missed the meeting because of the birth of his child, while Commissioners Thomas Davidson and Karn Stiegelmeier approved the request, even if perhaps through gritted teeth.

“I have had a number of people say, ‘Can we just have a ban forever?’” said Stiegelmeier. “And I feel the same way, because there are so many irresponsible people out there this year. But it’s sort of part of your right as an American to go out and build a fire, is what I’m getting from other people.”

The U.S. Forest Service, which conducts weekly fire danger analysis of its forestlands, estimates roughly nine out of every 10 wildfires are human caused. That was the case with the Peak 2 fire, though a pair of hikers of interest nearby when the blaze started have still not been identified.

Stiegelmeier theorized this year has been especially problematic for dispersed campsite fires due to the drier conditions, but also because more people are living in the woods and keeping warm by starting unauthorized fires. And when they decamp, they’re not sufficiently snuffing out the flames and hot ash to prevent it from potentially making a run into the forest.

With improved conditions and wetter weather, however, the region’s fire departments dropped the fire danger from high to moderate in the last three weeks. That justified removing the restrictions moving forward.

“We don’t want to have restrictions in place unnecessarily,” said Steve Lipsher, spokesman for Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue. “We understand that if we have fire restrictions in place, it diminishes some people’s enjoyment of their time in the mountains, so we don’t take it lightly.”

Still, on any given day and with a sudden shift in wind, officials warn that the High Country can go up like a tinderbox. As a result — ban or no ban — the county urged visitors and residents to continue to do everything they can to prevent a wildfire.

Those tips include never leaving a burning fire unattended, keeping campfires both small and under control, as well as always having a way for extinguishing your fire nearby.

“My level of fear of what an unattended campfire can do really hasn’t changed,” said Keating. “Somebody leaving a campfire in the wrong place in an area of a lot of dry brush and dry wood and we’re right back where we were with Peak 2. We just hope people will remain vigilant and careful, and not do anything to endanger the forest or the people.”

Short of a permanent ban — or the unlikelihood of enlisting a slew of campfire monitors throughout the county — officials are left to trust that campers know what they’re doing to avoid starting an unruly forest fire, and simply pray for the best.

“I think that we’re wet enough now that there isn’t that concern,” Stiegelmeier said of wildfires. “That doesn’t mean you get to go be reckless. We just need to have a big Smokey the Bear sign say ‘Don’t you dare.’”

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