Where there’s smoke

Springtime brings risk of out-of-control ditch burning

With his dogs at his side, Nick Randall watches over his controlled burn at his farm on County Road P. Fire officials encourage farmers to be cautious during the spring ditch-burning season. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

With his dogs at his side, Nick Randall watches over his controlled burn at his farm on County Road P. Fire officials encourage farmers to be cautious during the spring ditch-burning season.

It’s that time of year. Thin plumes of smoke can be seen rising from the county landscape — and where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Spring is a time when many farmers use flames to clear the ditches that feed their crops the precious water they need to grow.

On any clear day from higher ground you can see the smoke, according to Cortez Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Charles Balke. He said all you have to do is look.

“The county allows agricultural burning,” Balke said. “It’s intended to clean out the ditches to allow the irrigation water.”

Weeds and dead brush aren’t the only things going up in smoke, Balke said.

“People also burn trash so they don’t have to take it to the dump” he said. “It’s not the healthiest thing.”

Balke said that in Montezuma County all you have to do is notify dispatch and get logged in as a controlled burn — and make sure it’s not a red flag day. In the city you must obtain a permit at the city administration building, but still abide by the red flag system.

“We put out red flags if there is a wind advisory or if the fire danger is extreme,” he said.

Flames can quickly get away from people, no matter how careful they may be, Balke said.

“We’ve already had a few situations where controlled burns got out of control,” he said. “People had good intentions, but rapidly lost control out in the county.”

At least two separate incidences occurred — at County Roads F and 21, and at Roads M and 22. Fire crews handled both incidences safely.

In addition to winds, periods of low humidity add to increasing fire danger, Balke said. If these conditions have been present people need to use great caution.

If conditions are unsafe for burning, the red flags are put out in the morning or when conditions warrant them at stations around the county. There is one by the airport, one in front of city hall, one at Fire Station No. 3 on Colorado Highway 145 and one in front of the First National Bank building on East Main Street in Cortez.

Cortez Fire District Chief Jeff Vandervoorde said the spring season is tricky. It’s a low humidity year with high winds, and everyone is out burning canals and clearing brush, he said.

On March 26 there was an extreme fire danger and a high winds advisory issued by the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. The red flag system was activated as strong southwest winds gusted as hard as 30 to 40 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.

That same day, 10 acres went up in flames in Montezuma County. Fire crews were able to put out the fire before it grew larger, but the threat of danger was clearly apparent, according to Vandervoorde.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper banned all prescribed burns on state lands after two deaths resulted from a wildfire near Denver last week.

Vandervoorde said prescribed burns are implemented by land agencies and controlled burns pertain to private property. So far, controlled burns are still allowed.

“The moisture levels are so low and the wind picks up,” he said. “People just need to realize. People need to be careful.”

Vandervoorde reminded that those wishing to ignite a controlled burn need to check with local dispatch beforehand. He said the flag system is up and running, but it’s always good to call first to stay updated.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You just have to use common sense. Let us know you’re burning; otherwise, people call in a fire.”

On Thursday, Montezuma County Emergency Manager Paul Hollar put the county under a fire weather watch from Saturday to Sunday. He advised to have a shovel and water handy while burning anything and to make sure fires are extinguished completely before leaving them unattended.

“If it’s still hot, it’s not out,” Hollar said.

Jim Andrus, a Cortez regional weather observer for the National Weather Service, said the winds mark the beginning of the spring wind season, typically March, April and into May. Andrus said the end of March saw an episode of higher winds than usual.

“Windy, dry days are not the time to be lighting any fires,” Andrus said. “Wind speed isa red flag.”

For local information, red flag status and controlled burn notification and all other nonemergency related matters, call Cortez dispatch at 565-8454.

Reach Brandon Mathis at brandonm@cortezjournal.com