Something historic is happening in southwest Colorado.  And no, it doesn’t involve the discovery of gold or other precious minerals.  Instead it has to do with the greatest threat to our precious wilderness areas and forests – wildfire.

Historic Closure

For the first time in its history, the San Juan National Forest is closed.  Closed to camping, hiking, backpacking and any other recreational activities.  Closed to driving on 4-wheel drive roads. Closed to the general public for any reason at all.  Closed due to no rain for weeks and record low levels of snow pack.  Closed because the forest is tinder dry.  So dry that any spark could set the forest on fire. The city of Durango is considering similar actions of closing their parks and open spaces as well, mainly because all emergency personnel are tied up fighting fires.

The snow pack this past winter in southwest Colorado was among the worst in years, hovering around 20% this past spring.  Unfortunately, the low snow pack led many to start hiking and backpacking much earlier than would be typical.  Forest Service employees admit there are many backpackers out in the wilderness that are unreachable and unaware of the closure.

I can’t imagine anything scarier than to be on foot backpacking and confront a wildfire burning nearby.  Fires can spread unimaginable speed, especially up steep terrain and aided by wind.  I can only hope this folks will get out soon before another fire breaks out.

Wildfires Burning Near Durango

Two fires are already burning near Durango.  The 416 wildfire has burned over 23,000 acres and is spreading rapidly.  Right now, it is at only 15% containment.  The Burro Fire is also burning nearby with over 3,000 acres burned. Throughout the southwest, many wildfires are burning in public lands and resources are being stretched thin.

Even in difficult fire seasons, officials have never closed an entire national forest.  But perhaps they learned their lesson from the past.  The unfortunate truth is that most wildfires are human-caused.  Caused by people who start fires when they shouldn’t and fail to put them out correctly.  FYI, using dirt or rocks to put out a fire doesn’t work.  Any fire must be doused with water multiple times until the ash is cool to the touch.

Fire Restrictions in Place

Here on the Front Range, multiple counties including Boulder and Gilpin counties, enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions today as well.  Down in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, some counties have already bumped up their restrictions to Stage 2, which basically means no open fires period on either private or public land.

As a resident who’s been evacuated multiple times for wildfires, I’m glad to see officials being proactive rather than reactive.  I’ve often said to my neighbors that I wish they would just enact a fire ban from Memorial Day through September every year.

Stage 1 fire restrictions means the following:

  • No personal use of fireworks.
  • No open burning in a fire ring, grate, or pit on either public or private land.
  • No contained burning on grills, torches or other devices on public land.
  • No smoking in areas of combustible materials (basically anywhere in the forest).
  • No target shooting on public lands.
  • No using a combustible engine without a spark-arresting device.

For more information on these restrictions, see Boulder County’s website.  If you do see any of these activities going on in Boulder County, please call Boulder County Dispatch, 24 hours a day, at 303-441-4444.  I put this number in my cell phone so I always have it to call if needed.

A Silver Lining

I found all of this pretty depressing, as June is often our hottest and driest month.  It’s scary to feel as if you are on constant alert for puffs of smoke and fire breaking out.  As I write this, I spied a campfire on Peewink Mountain due north of our house and called it in.

But today’s weather forecast did bring a more encouraging piece of news.  Starting on Thursday, there is a chance of rain for the next several days.  And the 6-10 day outlook issued by NOAA shows lots of monsoonal moisture coming up from the south.

Bring on the rain!