416 Fire

The 416 Fire as seen from U.S. Highway 160 northwest of Durango last Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Jenny Klein/Telluride Daily Planet)

Water and fire: Key elements that each can bring destruction or salvation, depending on what is needed. Right now, as forest fires rage too close for comfort, it’s water that southwest Colorado needs.

At Tuesday’s Telluride Town Council meeting, council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that bans open fires and fireworks and restricts smoking in the Town of Telluride, including Telluride Town Park during festivals. Given the severity of the drought Telluride and the region are experiencing, council used its powers to move swiftly to enact the ordinance as a means of shoring up public safety.

The new restrictions were passed following a morning work session with Town Park staff, members of the Telluride Fire Protection District and Telluride Bluegrass Festival promoter Craig Ferguson.

Initially stricter than that of similar smoking and fire bans enacted in past drought years, the part of the new prohibition that drew the closest scrutiny was regarding smokers and where they smoke. Originally, council eyed language that would have required smokers to light up only in cars, buildings or other enclosed areas that permit smoking. They eventually eased it to allow smoking on paved areas within the town. 

“We don’t want to have people sneaking around in the woods,” Town Manager Ross Herzog told council.

Though a slight chance of rain brings hope to the weekend’s forecast, local officials are taking no chances, especially in light of the fact that the upcoming Telluride Bluegrass Festival will attract as many as 15,000 additional people to the valley. Those people, some on council worried, may not understand the severity of this year’s grave fire danger. Ferguson agreed and said that he had the means and ability to educate festival attendees before they rolled into town. “This is definitely the most dangerous I’ve ever seen it,” he said. 

Ferguson also worried that festival campers in Town Park — 1,200 in the campground and the Bear Creek Preserve area, and 400 in Warner Field — might not have adequate access to approved smoking areas in the park. Only the infield areas of the playing fields and the parking lot are designated areas. 

Fire Marshal Jim Boeckel expressed concerns over the possibility of permitting smoking in the densely inhabited campground areas, reminding the assembled of the fact that fire fuels are prevalent in the grassy, wooded campground. “You shouldn’t do it,” he advised. “The grasses are the biggest danger.”

Fourth of July follows hard on the heels of Bluegrass and fire official David Wadley assured council members and town staff that, “We take it extremely seriously.” While he couldn’t make the call on whether or not the fireworks show would fill the skies this year, he and other fire district officials detailed the rigorous testing and monitoring leading up to, and during, the display. With a close eye to long-range weather forecasting and instruments that measure the amount of moisture in the area surrounding the launch site on Firecracker Hill and up Bear Creek, the district works closely with the Forest Service before determining if it is safe. 

“We know what our environment is before we shoot,” Wadley said. The district keeps wild land firefighters on call, has an array of firefighting equipment nearby and employs spotters in the surrounding forest with infrared cameras working every show, in addition to thoroughly wetting down the area.

The emergency ordinance goes hand-in-hand with water conservation measures that took effect in early May, precipitated by scant snowpack and a paucity of rain. Those restrictions are still in place and will be until further notice. Restaurant patrons have likely noticed water is not automatically offered — one must ask for it — and keeping the peonies hydrated using a garden hose is only allowed on alternate days. Even then, gardeners are asked to limit watering to before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. when evaporation from the relentless sun is greatly lessened. Hand watering is permitted at all times.

Numerous other water restrictions are in place, all of which concern treated municipal water. Bluegrass festival staff wetting the dust with a hose, and the irrigation system installed in Town Park use non-potable water.

Mountain Village water restrictions, which went into effect May 1, require all property owners north of Mountain Village Boulevard and Elk Run residents to water their landscaping on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only, and for all owners south of Mountain Village Boulevard, plus the Ski Ranches and Skyfield, to water their landscaping on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays only. All irrigating must happen either before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m.

Telluride council member DeLanie Young was dismayed to observe that, in spite of the administrative order outlining water conservation measures, she’d seen people washing sidewalks with a hose. “That’s really not OK,” she said. Paul Ruud of the town’s Public Works department noted that from now through the next 30 days is historically the highest water use of the year.

According to an article in the May 14 edition of Scientific American, “spring runoff helps to moisten and recharge the soil — shortages can stress the local vegetation and cause the landscape to dry out faster, potentially increasing the likelihood of earlier and more severe wildfires.”

That potential has been realized, as forest fires have been raging across the west and in the region. At press time, the 416 Fire northeast of Durango has consumed thousands of acres, threatening numerous homes in the Hermosa watershed and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homeowners. Firefighters listed its estimated containment date as July 31. The Horse Park Fire in the county’s west end as been largely contained, but the Burro Fire just 10 miles south of Rico has consumed more than 2,000 acres in steep terrain since its start May 26. Its proximity — and the potential for it to join the 416 Fire — has lead fire officials to link it to the 416 Fire Facebook page. The San Juan National Forest is currently under Stage 3 fire restrictions and is closed to the public. Forest service and BLM decision-makers are meeting today to determine if the adjoining forest areas will upgrade their fire conditions.

Town of Telluride water conservation rules and a copy of the emergency ordinance can be found at telluride-co.gov.