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Update: Montezuma County starts fire restrictions as temperatures soar in Cortez

Cortez sets new records; San Juan forest also starts restrictions
San Juan National Forest will enact Stage 1 fire restrictions on Wednesday that ban open fires, smoking, fireworks and other activities. (The Journal file)

Southwest Colorado has enacted fire restrictions amid record high temperatures and severe drought conditions.

On Wednesday, the San Juan National Forest will put in place Stage 1 fire restrictions that ban fires, including the use of charcoals or briquettes outside of metal or concrete fire pits or grates in developed campgrounds and picnic areas.

The Forest Service also allows the use of propane-fueled grills or sheepherder-type stoves with a chimney of at least 5 feet, a mesh screen and a spark arrester.

Montezuma County enacts fire ban

The Montezuma County Board of Commissioners has initiated a fire ban in all unincorporated areas of the county beginning Wednesday at 6 a.m.

The majority of Montezuma County is in extreme drought, and fire fuels are at record low moisture levels, reported county public information officer Vicki Shaffer in a news release Tuesday.

Combined with current and predicted hot, dry weather, these conditions have created a critical fire environment. The fire ban has the support of county fire chiefs and Sheriff Steve Nowlin.

The county fire ban prohibits open fires, controlled burns and use of fireworks.

“An ‘open fire’ is any fire in an outdoor location where fuel is being burned except for the following:

  • Commercial enclosed incinerators.
  • Residential charcoal and gas barbecue grills.
  • Welding and/or operating an acetylene or similar torch with an open flame related to oil and gas production shall be allowed when conducted in a 20-foot radius safe zone free of vegetation and when complying with the requirements of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Rule 606A(o) regarding Fire Prevention and Production.
  • Welding and/or operating an acetylene or similar torch with an open flame, except that, as long as a fire watch individual is on site and readily available with proper hand tools and either one 2.5-gallon pressurized fire extinguisher, one 5-pound ABC extinguisher, or pressurized water supply, welding and/or operating an acetylene or similar torch with an open flame in a 20-foot radius safe zone free of vegetation is not prohibited.
  • Burn barrels equipped with ¼ inch screen shall be allowed when conducted in a 20-foot radius safe zone free of vegetation.”

Wildfire risk is an imminent danger and restrictions will be enforced, Shaffer said. Violations of the Montezuma County fire ban may be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Fire restrictions have also been enacted by neighboring counties, municipalities, and federal land agencies.

Always check restrictions and when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Dolores County also has initiated a fire ban, and area towns have indicated they plan to do the same, Shaffer said. The town of Dolores enacted a fire ban Monday.

La Plata County banned open fires, but allowed for propane grills at private residences.

Heat wave hits Montezuma County

The heat wave began toppling record high temperatures in Montezuma County on Sunday, and hasn’t relented yet, said Jim Andrus of Cortez, a weather watcher for the National Weather Service.

  • On Sunday, the high reached 95 degrees, tying the record for June 13 set in 2018.
  • Monday, the high reached 97 degrees, toppling the record of 95 set June 14, 1936.
  • Tuesday, the high reached 97 degrees after noon, topping the record of 93 set in 1974.

And the forecast calls for more record heat through Friday.

  • Wednesday, the high of 101 degrees at 3 p.m. shattered the record of 96, set June 16, 2007.
  • Thursday, the high reached 98 degrees, which topped the record of 95, set June 17, 2007.

On Friday Cortez got a small reprieve when the high of 95 degree fell short of the record of 98 set in 1936.

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La Plata enacts restrictions

La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton, at Tuesday’s commission meeting, said: “I certainly support going to Stage 1. Unfortunately looking at where all this is going and looking at all the data, we probably are going to be assessing whether to go to Stage 2.”

Southwest Colorado is listed in exceptional drought, and weather forecasts expect critical fire conditions in the region for the foreseeable future, according to a SJNF news release issued Tuesday.

The SJNF prohibitions and bans listed under Stage 1 fire restrictions include:

  • Igniting, building, maintaining or using a fire (including fires fueled by charcoal or briquettes) outside a permanent metal or concrete fire pit or grate that the Forest Service has installed and maintained at its developed recreation sites (campgrounds and picnic areas). The fee for violating the fire ban is $500.
  • Smoking, except in an enclosed vehicle or building or in a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter barren or cleared of all flammable materials. The fine for violating the smoking ban is $300.
  • Operating a chain saw without an effective and properly installed and federally approved spark arrester. Anyone using a permitted chain saw with a spark arrester must also have a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher with at least an 8-ounce capacity. They also must have a round-point shovel with an overall length of 35 inches. The fine for violating the chain saw prohibition is $300.
  • Blasting, welding or operating an acetylene or other torch with open flame without being in a cleared area of at least 10 feet in diameter and keeping a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher with a minimum 8-ounce capacity. The fine for violation is $300.
  • Using explosives is banned. This prohibition includes but is not limited to fuses, blasting caps, fireworks, rockets, exploding targets, tracers and incendiary ammunition. The fine for violating this prohibition ranges from $300 to $500 for exploding targets.

The use of fireworks are always prohibited in the San Juan National Forest, said Lorena Williams, SJNF spokeswoman.

Other federal, state and local fire managers are also examining fire restrictions.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe implemented State 1 fire restrictions Monday for all trust lands throughout the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

According to the Forest Service, almost 90% of all wildfires on public lands are started by humans.

For information about current fire restrictions, conditions and recreation opportunities in the San Juan National Forest, call 247-4874 or visit the San Juan National Forest website.

The San Juan National Forest can also be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

In unincorporated areas of La Plata County, the Sage I Fire restrictions ban:

Building, maintaining or attending open fires including campfires in unincorporated areas. The restrictions also ban the use of coal-burning or wood-burning stoves or any charcoal-fueled broiler.

The county restrictions do allow the use of barbecue grills that are fully attended and fully extinguished after use in private residences.

Other prohibitions in the county’s Stage I fire restrictions include:

  • Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building or in a developed recreation site or any area that has at least a 3-foot diameter that has been cleared of vegetation or is barren.
  • Using explosives, blasting caps or any incendiary devices. The ban allows for blasting in development areas or for construction purposes as long as there is a continuous watch and written authorization is obtained from the local fire chief.
  • Welding or using acetylene or other torches, unless there is a fire watch individual on site with easy access to firefighting tools including a fire extinguisher, a pressurized water supply, hand tools and there is a 20-foot radius safe zone free of vegetation around the activity.
  • Operating any internal-combustion engine except those equiped with properly installed and maintained spark arrestor.
  • Lighting and using fireworks.
  • Using sky lanterns, fire balloons or acetylene balloons.

The county fire restrictions allow for oil and gas production activities under tightened restrictions to protect against accidental fires.

The Journal contributed to this article.

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