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Prescribed burns halted, bans discussed as fire danger soars

March 27, 2012
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With a deadly fire blazing in Jefferson County and several small fires sparking throughout El Paso County in the past week, area fire officials are not just wringing their hands over the early start of wildfire season.

Prescribed burns have been halted, Teller County has implemented fire restrictions and any hint of a wildland fire is hit with extra resources.

“We are extremely concerned about the current conditions,” said Steven Steed, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Teller County.

On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service ranked much of the Colorado Front Range as having “extreme fire danger” — the highest possible category. El Paso and Teller counties both had red flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service Tuesday, another indicator of high fire danger.

So how bad is it?

Area fire crews are awaiting word from the forest service on upcoming tests that will determine the moisture content of vegetation and trees. The dryer that vegetation, the more quickly a fire can spread, said Sunny Smaldino, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

Winter weather was much warmer than usual and precipitation was low.

For example, March, which typically has the highest snowfall of the year, has been well below normal, according to the National Weather Service.  A normal March in Colorado Springs would bring 0.82 inches of precipitation in Colorado Springs. As of Monday, the city had received 0.06 inches of precipitation.

“If those fire fuels don’t have moisture, then we’re in really, really critical condition,” Smaldino said. Based on the last moisture readings before the first winter snowfall, it wasn’t looking good, she said. Conditions were similar to 2002 when the Hayman fire became the largest in the state’s history, burning 138,000 acres in Teller, Park, Jefferson and Douglas counties, destroying 133 homes and causing an estimated $40 million worth of damage.

“Conditions are shaping up to be the same we had prior to the Hayman fire,” Smaldino said.

Local emergency and forest crews are taking steps to prevent fires and increase response if there is one. Some of these measures include:

• Teller County instituted burn restrictions Sunday night — meaning all open burning permits are restricted. The county has not issued a fire ban, but is discussing it and one could be in place as early as the beginning of April, Steed said.  There are no fire restrictions in Colorado Springs or unincorporated El Paso County, but they are being discussed, officials have said.

• The U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Springs Fire Department have postponed planned prescribed burns. The forest service had announced Friday that there would be upcoming burns on about 1,500 acres northwest of Woodland Park, but that is no longer the case.

“Right now it’s dry and windy out there,” said Jace Ratzlaff, a forest service spokesman.

“Before we do any type of prescribed burning, we really have to analyze the weather issues and patterns.”

• Fire crews in Colorado Springs and Teller County are sending out extra teams on each fire call.

“They are ready so, just in case, they don’t have to go back to the station to get extra equipment,” Smaldino said.

The Pikes Peak Region has a unique danger compared to much of Colorado’s front range because there are so many homes on the Wildland-Urban interface — meaning more people are living year-round on land susceptible to wildfires. The west side of Colorado Springs has the largest amount of people living in an interface in the state with 24 percent of the population.

The percentage of homes is even higher in northern El Paso County — where the Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection district estimates that 40 percent of its homes are in the interface — and in Teller County, where Steed estimates 60 percent of the homes are within the interface.   

Robert Denboske, chief of the Monument department, said that people who live so close to the forest want to be close to nature.. He encourages them to protect their homes and help clear their yards to keep fire-burning fuels away.

“People choose to live where they want,” he said. “They have to understand the consequences that come with it.”

Contact Maria St. Louis-Sanchez: 636-0274
Twitter @mariastlouis
 Facebook Gazette Maria St. Louis-Sanchez

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