Have you ever wondered why a fire ban might be in place one day but not another? Decisions are based on measured information about the likely occurrence and spread of wildfire, according to Salida Fire Department Chief Doug Bess.
The process, called a “decision matrix,” includes seven quantifiable factors related to weather, on-the-ground conditions and firefighting capabilities. Forecasters with the U.S. Forest Service compile the information and share it in a weekly e-mail with fire leaders and the Chaffee County Sheriff. During the fire season this contact can occur more frequently and is elevated to a group call-in.
“Fire danger can be emotional because everyone has their own level of risk acceptance, on a spectrum of those who don’t want any burning, ever, and others who want to have a campfire when they can,” Bess said. “Decisions are based on science, and when the levels are okay to remove a ban, it’s time to do it because that’s an important activity for our tourism economy.”
Numerical values are assigned to each factor in the matrix, described below, and restrictions are enacted by officials when pre-defined thresholds are reached.
Fuel Moisture Content is a measure of the amount of water in vegetation available to a fire. It is expressed as a percentage of the dry weight of that specific fuel. If vegetation is totally dry, the fuel moisture content is zero percent. When the fuel moisture content is low, fires start easily and will spread rapidly.
Forecasters classify different types of vegetation, ranging from dead leaves to big pines, and consider how long it would take for these fuels to adjust to moist or dry conditions. A 10–hour fuel such as dead grass is different than a 100–hour, or 1,000–hour fuel like fallen trees. 1,000+ hour fuels do not burn easily but if they do, the extreme heat generated can cause dangerous fire behavior conditions.
Fuel Moisture Content informs the Energy Release Component (ERC), another matrix factor that predicts the rate of heat release and duration of burning time per unit area. It is expressed in BTUs per square foot.
Fire Danger Rating is expressed in the familiar, colorful signs typically posted road-side near forests, where a pointer indicates “green” for Low Danger on up through “red” for Extreme Danger.
An analysis of wide-ranging fire suppression resources considers whether existing wildfires impact the ability to make an adequate initial attack at the local level. This ranking, known here as the Rocky Mountain Region preparedness level, takes into account out-of-state incidents because local fire trucks and firefighters might have been sent to fight those fires. Forecasters also assign a value to local preparedness capabilities.
Short- and long-term weather forecasts also are given a matrix value that describes whether trends are improving, stable or deteriorating. This information is gleaned from the National Weather Service.
Finally, the chance of human-caused wildfire is considered and ranked, for example if risk increases due to visitor campfire activity over a busy holiday weekend.
All of the municipal fire departments in Chaffee County comply with fire restrictions declared by the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, and if the Forest Service enacts restrictions, the local jurisdictions generally follow. Exceptions can occur in the springtime, when restrictions can be enacted at lower elevations that are dry but not on higher-elevation forests that are still moist and covered in snow. Restrictions are generally consistent in the summer months.
Residents who would like to burn on their property must call the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center to notify of the planned burn and confirm that a restriction is not in place.
- Sheriff’s Office Dispatch 719-539-2596 or chaffeesheriff.org/fire-restrictions
- Buena Vista Fire Department 719-395-8098
- Chaffee County Fire Protection District 719-395-6545
- Salida Fire Department 719-539-2212
- U.S. Forest Service Salida Ranger District 719-539-3591
Terms To Know
Open Fire: Any outdoor fire or burn including campfires, warming fires, charcoal fires, charcoal-fueled broilers or barbecue grills, fires in wood-burning stoves, and the prescribed burning of trash, debris and agricultural lands.
Red Flag Warning: Issued by the National Weather Service to alert officials to be on the lookout for wildfires and that planned burns should be curtailed. This warning indicates that conditions are highly unfavorable for prescribed burns and that may lead to especially dangerous wildfire growth.
No Burn Day: A Red Flag Warning automatically triggers this fire restriction in Chaffee County. Restrictions are similar to Stage II (see graphic). An Open Fire of any kind is not allowed, including outdoor smoking and the use of charcoal grills and fireplaces at private residences. The sale and use of fireworks and use of chainsaws also is prohibited.
Fire Weather Watch: One step below a Red Flag Warning, a Fire Weather Watch is issued by the National Weather Service to alert land managers and the public that upcoming weather conditions could result in extensive wildland fire occurrence or extreme fire behavior. It means that critical fire weather conditions are possible but not imminent or occurring.
Stage I Fire Restriction: The least restrictive level. Burning trash, leaf piles and the like are prohibited but some recreational fires are still allowed (see graphic). Campfires within a permanent constructed ring or fire grate in a developed public campground, public picnic ground, commercial campground or on private property are still allowed.
Stage II Fire Restriction: More restrictive than Stage I and one step short of a total ban, this level prohibits building, maintaining or attending any Open Fire within Chaffee County. Includes prohibitions on fireworks, smoking, welding and use of chainsaws (see graphic). The use of a proper liquid-fueled camp stove that has a shut-off valve is allowed.