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If summer doesn’t feel complete without circling around the campfire or toasting marshmallows over a fresh bed of embers, you’re in luck—for now. Despite wildfires across the West and smoke clouding the skies, some forest managers in Colorado have generally reported declining wildfire risk and lifted campfire bans, at least until warmer, drier conditions return.
But others say the risk of conditions turning, given last year’s record-setting wildfires, is steering them toward a more judicious approach. “For us, our feeling is, [campfires are] just not worth the risk, especially since this county went through the East Troublesome Fire last year,” says Paul Mintier, fire management officer for Grand County Sheriff’s Department. The East Troublesome Fire burned 193,000 acres last year, placing 35,000 people under evacuation orders and destroying more than 500 residences and structures.
While there’s no proof of how many wildfires are prevented by campfire bans, land managers see them as a critical measure for reducing risks. Recent wildfires in Colorado featured your basic rogues’ gallery of causes: a cigarette tossed into dry grass, a spark-igniting chain dragging from a trailer on the road, and abandoned campfires. Most of these fires were brought under control quickly. But human-caused fires also lengthen the fire season, especially in the West, according to research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which also reported that humans start 84 percent of wildfires.
This year’s fire season entered with grim predictions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cautioned in June: “Fire managers and residents of the western U.S. will be on edge as a relentless drought and episodes of extreme heat—caused by short-term weather and longer-term climate change—increase the likelihood that natural or human-caused ignitions will bring a long wildfire season across the bone-dry landscape.”
In northwestern Colorado, conditions dried out by June to levels not typically seen until late August, making way for a longer fire season and potentially bigger, more intense wildfires. Eight of Colorado’s 11 national forests banned campfires outside of developed campgrounds, or banned them entirely, in June.
But July brought a change in course. In March, all of Colorado experienced some form of drought, according to The National Weather Service. But as of early August, only 43 percent of the state, mostly in the west and northwest, had maintained that designation. Forest supervisors at five of the eight national forests that started the summer with campfire restrictions in place responded by lifting those restrictions, along with the caution that if conditions dry out again, these bans could be reinstated.
The choice wasn’t without risk: The federal fire danger map—which sets the level on the Smokey Bear signs that often greet drivers headed into national forests—still flags much of the state as moderate to high risk, with a few pockets in the west, around Grand Junction and Eagle, at very high.
Land managers consider several factors: current and forecasted weather; how dried out dead and live trees, brush, and grasses are; current fire activity and availability of firefighting resources; and the ecological, economic, and social impacts of a burn.
“They have been tracking the factors … and those have dropped to a level where the fire danger decreased, so they felt that it was safe at this point to reduce the level of restrictions,” says Donna Nemeth, regional press officer for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region. These conditions vary widely between states—or even from one portion of a state to the next. “That’s why Utah still is within a range where they need to implement the restrictions,” she says, “but Colorado can lower theirs.”
Fire restrictions come in three levels called stages. Stage one still permits fires in the metal fire rings and grates found at developed campgrounds, but bans using charcoal barbecues and fires in rock fire rings at a primitive campsite, as well as smoking outdoors. Stage two bans all fires, even in campgrounds. And stage three closes an area to all visitors. In any conditions, effectively extinguishing a campfire means drowning, stirring, and checking that the ashes feel cool.
While much of Colorado has cleared campers to build fires even in dispersed sites, Grand County, which covers part of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests remains at stage two, even barring backyard fire pits. (Check the latest at Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management websites, or county updates posted on the Colorado Department of Public Safety website.) Mintier says they made that call accounting for the number of lodgepole pine killed by beetles creating drier, warmer forest conditions. Grand County officials also questioned whether it would be possible, or how long it would take, to get wildland firefighters or aerial tankers onto a fire. Even with recent rain, just a few warm and windy days would be enough to turn the forest back into a tinderbox.
“We just really don’t want another large fire in the county this year,” Mintier says. For other counties who have dropped their restrictions, he says, “I’m not there. I’m not walking that ground. I’ve got to believe they’re making educated decisions about their piece of ground. … But we’re just—we’re comfortable being in stage two.”