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A prescribed fire north of Fort Collins turned into a wildfire, the Elk Fire, in October 2019. Photo by Jay Bouchard

This is Not a Good Time for a Campfire

Forests are dry and firefighters face perilous conditions due to COVID-19. As we look toward the long weekend, it's more important than ever to heed fire restrictions and think twice about putting smoke in the air.

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Almost a month ago, I was driving a Forest Service road near the burn scar of the 2002 Hayman Fire—the largest recorded wildfire in Colorado’s history. Technically, I shouldn’t have been there. I really shouldn’t have been more than 10 miles from my home in Denver, but I was driving to see my uncle in Conifer who had recently celebrated a birthday in quarantine. I took the long way around, stretching the rules for a little scenery.

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, a nice reprieve from the stifling city life I’d come to know amidst stay-at-home orders. The air was crisp, the forest landscape was refreshing. Then I saw the plume of smoke rising above the hills about a quarter-mile up the road.

Soon, I smelled ashy air. Moments later, I turned a corner and I saw a Jefferson County Sheriff truck with its lights on pulled to the side of the road; just up the hill from that vehicle, small pockets of flames burned and several people, presumably target shooters, ran away from the fire carrying rifles and ammunition. The cause is still under investigation, but based on initial reports, that fire—now known as the 560 Fire—was started accidentally by people recreating. Ultimately, it only burned about 80 acres and was mopped up within 48 hours.

I passed the sheriff’s truck and kept driving.

What I saw down the road was less jarring, but in retrospect it was as concerning. Many people were camping in dispersed sites—harmless enough—but several campers, even with the sun high in the sky, sat around fires. Despite the fact that the U.S. Forest Service had at that time banned open fires throughout the state due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Coloradans were flouting those restrictions for a little normalcy in the mountains. Maybe I’m being hypocritical. After all, I shouldn’t have been passing by the those campsites in the first place. But campfires are a major concern right now due to a number of factors.

First, it’s been a dry spring across the Centennial State. More than half the state is abnormally dry or experiencing some level of drought, be it moderate, severe, or extreme. This is compounded by the fact that, due to the novel coronavirus, hardly any acres in Colorado were treated by controlled burning in the wet, cool months of early spring. As a result, some parts of the state are at heightened risk for catastrophic wildfire—but there are other important reasons to be careful.

Research shows that contaminated air can worsen the condition of someone suffering symptoms of COVID-19. Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is produced in smoke, and if inhaled—depending on quantity and duration—it can lead to serious respiratory issues. If someone were to accidentally start a wildfire and the smoke reached a nearby town or city, it could hinder those communities’ ability to treat patients who are sick.

“If you’re near other people, be courteous. Smoke is more harmful than it is maybe understood to be,” says Dave Lasky, director of fire management for the Forest Stewards Guild. “To the extent that we’re all in this together, if you can do without a campfire, that’s probably for the best.”

We should also be mindful of first responders who mobilize in the instance of a fire. As the Durango Herald reported last week, wildland firefighters work and live in extremely close quarters when they’re called to a fire—but in the age of social distancing, those working conditions put emergency personnel at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Even if your campfire were contained and it simply produced a large quantity of smoke, firefighters might be called to the scene by a concerned neighbor. “Folks are nervous for a lot of reasons,” Lasky says. “If your fire causes firefighters to have to come out and check it, that’s a big ask in the current climate.”

So, if you’re heading to the mountains this weekend, research fire restrictions before going anywhere. The U.S. Forest Service actually rescinded its broad regional fire ban on May 20, and is working with local and state officials to determine where burn restrictions need to be enforced throughout the state. As of right now, restrictions remain in place throughout Colorado’s public land: The Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, the Rio Grande National Forest, the San Juan National Forest, and the White River National Forest still have burn bans in effect.

Beyond that, a network of state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Colorado State Forest Service,  manage land in Colorado and have specific regulations. For more information on burn restrictions, you can check with Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. You can also access the Colorado Department of Natural Resources’ list of COVID-19-related closures and restrictions here. And, as always, you can call ahead to ranger districts for area-specific regulations before making plans.

And if you’re heading out to recreate this weekend, remember to take extra precautions to stay safe so we can all continue to enjoy Colorado’s great outdoors in the warm months to come.

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