Several large fires across the Four Corners states have emergency and fire personnel asking, “Is Archuleta County next?”
A fire at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument had reached 4,772 acres as of Wednesday morning and was still growing, while a fire 20 miles west of Espanola, N.M., had burned 14,310 acres by 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, an increase of 420 acres from the day before.
Other large fires are burning near Canon City and Rifle, as well as throughout New Mexico and Arizona, an indicator to officials that the local fire season is about to begin.
“We generally run, because of our elevation, one to two weeks behind our surrounding area,” said Drew Peterson, Archuleta County Emergency Services coordinator.
Although a fire season outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center in May predicted a mild fire season following heavy winter snows, persistent hot, dry and windy weather has created a different picture.
Red-flag warnings have been instituted throughout the spring.
A red flag warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either currently occurring or there is a strong possibility they will. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures create explosive fire growth potential.
The wind has a drying effect on potential fuels, such as oak brush, creating high fire danger, Peterson said.
Despite a delayed fire season, compared to surrounding areas, a number of small fires have been extinguished in Archuleta County, most caused by dry lightning, but the blazes were kept small due to early detection.
The largest of the fires thus far in Archuleta County was human-caused and burned just over 13 acres north of Pagosa Springs, standing as the largest wildfire in the Pagosa Fire Protection District since its inception.
A large, controlled burn is still under way in a special use area in the Piedra Area and is being closely watched and suppressed according to need.
Because of the increasing fire danger, PFPD Chief Ron Thompson and Peterson are urging extreme caution when burning and during Fourth of July festivities, and are asking that any and all smoke be reported, especially as monsoon season approaches with expectations of lesser-than-normal moisture and heightened potential for dry lightning.
Permits required for open-burning fires must be obtained from the PFPD administrative office. Permits are $5 and are good from the time of purchase until the end of the calendar year in which they are purchased.
Several other permit requirements exist, including burning within specified locations and certain daytime hours, maintaining constant physical attendance while burning and readily possessing fire-extinguishing equipment.
All permit buyers are required to provide a name, address for the open burn and phone number. The permit is good for one address, but may be used multiple times. Each time an open burn is scheduled, the permit holder must contact Archuleta County Combined Dispatch at 264-2131.
No burning is allowed when a red flag warning is in effect and dispatch may advise not to burn when red flag warnings are expected.
In any case, vigilance with ignition sources is urged and, should a resident choose, the PFPD and ACSD are available to ensure a fire is out.
When planning Independence Day activities, dry weather conditions should be taken into account, as well as laws.
All fireworks are illegal within town limits. Undersheriff John Weiss explained that a good rule of thumb in the county is that if a firework leaves the ground or creates an audible explosion, it is an illegal firework.
According to a town fire ordinance, “No open fires are allowed in the Town of Pagosa Springs. Recreational campfires within permanently constructed fire pits or fire enclosures limited in size to four (4) square feet are permitted. Recreational fires within Town boundaries must be only for cooking, social gatherings, marshmallow roasting and other like activities. In no case will a fire be allowed for trash, leaf or refuse burning or be allowed to exceed the confines of the required fire containment structures.”
No additional restrictions have been put into place, but if adverse conditions persist, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or National Park Service could impose mandatory fire restrictions. If and when that occurs, they typically come in stages.
Stage One restrictions will dictate the following:
• Campfires are limited to permanent fire rings or grates within developed campgrounds. No coal or wood-burning stoves or any type of charcoal-fueled broiler.
• Smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings, or three-foot diameter areas cleared of all dry vegetation.
• Chainsaws and other internal-combustion engines must have approved and functional spark arresters.
• Acetylene and other torches with an open flame may not be used.
• The use of explosives, including fireworks, is prohibited in both forest zones.
Should conditions worsen, Stage Two restrictions will prohibit campfires altogether, and limit smoking to enclosed vehicles or buildings. Tighter constraints will further limit the use of chainsaws and other devises with internal-combustion engines, and off-road vehicle operations may be prohibited. If Stage Three becomes necessary, all public lands will close.
Chuck McGuire contributed to this article.