Fire potential increased due to dry conditions, local officials advise caution

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By Chris Mannara
Staff Writer

“We’re looking at conditions definitely getting hotter and dryer and lining up for large fire potential, and so we’ve definitely been preparing for increased fire danger,” Pagosa Fire Protection District (PFPD) Deputy Chief Karn Macht said in an interview on May 6.

This year’s fire outlook is projected to be worse than last year’s, Macht explained, adding that the PFPD is expecting a 2013 or 2018 scenario given the current conditions.

However, Macht noted that this upcoming season should not be as bad as 2018 because of this year’s snowpack.

As of May 6, local basins have a total snowpack of 54 percent of median. The Upper San Juan site has a snowpack total of 36 percent and the Wolf Creek summit is at 49 percent of median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

On that same date in 2018, local basins had a total snowpack of 15 percent of median. The Upper San Juan site did not have a snowpack total at that time and the Wolf Creek summit was at 33 percent of median.

“There’s going to be water in streams longer than there was in 2018, which is going to be a little bit more helpful,” Macht said. “But unless we get some later spring rain and the wind dies down, fire potential is always out there, but at least we have water to be able to manage that.” 

The biggest concern for the PFPD is burning being done in the afternoon when higher winds could be common, he explained.

“One of our biggest calls is fires along the side of the road from people dragging chains and causing sparks,” he said. 

Macht recommends that people get their brakes checked so they don’t have hot brake parts fall off by the road and create a fire.

Additionally, people should have the proper equipment, such as a fire extinguisher or a shovel, to take care of a smaller fire before it turns into a larger one, he added later.

“Accidents are prone to happen,” Macht said. “Practice safe practices before the restrictions have to be put into effect because people are not being diligent.”

Drought

As of April 30, Archuleta County was in “severe drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Effects of being labeled as “severe drought” are things such as farmers reducing planting, fire season being extended and river flows being reduced, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website.

Fire restrictions 

In an interview on May 6, Archuleta County Emergency Operations Deputy Director Christina Kraetsch explained that Archuleta County is not in fire restrictions despite the Pagosa Ranger District implementing some “minor restrictions.” 

A forest order from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was executed on April 7 prohibits two things for multiple national forests and grasslands across the country, including the San Juan National Forest.

The first prohibition prevents igniting, building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, the order indicates. This includes charcoal grills, barbecues, coal, and wood-burning stoves and sheepherder’s stoves.

The second prohibition prohibits smoking except within an enclosed vehicle, trailer or building.

Exemptions for prohibitions include persons with a forest permit that specifically exempts them from the effects of the order, and any federal, state or local officer or member of an organized rescue or firefighting force in the performance of an official duty.

Specific exemptions for the first prohibition include those using pressurized liquid or gas devices with shutoff valves in an area at least 3 feet from flammable materials or residents in the areas who are using a fire in a permanent dwelling with the proper approved spark arrestors.

“We are not in a Stage 1 or 2 fire ban,” Kraetsch said. “This is just the forest service doing these restrictions. The county is in nothing right now. But when they do put in place a fire ban, we will follow suit.”