Land, Water and People: Making sense of fire restrictions

Wildland fires, fire restrictions, and even complete national forest closures have garnered a lot of attention in the news over the last month. Last winter’s low snowpack, early melt, and general lack of moisture during the spring has made for record breaking dry conditions throughout much of the Southwest.

The Rio Grande National Forest initiated Stage 1 fire restrictions on May 21, which are still in place as I write this. The biggest impact of these restrictions to visitors is that open campfires are restricted to developed recreation sites. Only petroleum fueled stoves can be used throughout the rest of the Forest.

Other national forests surrounding us have gone to Stage 2 fire restrictions and the San Juan National Forest was even closed for a bit more than a week as they were in Stage 3 fire restrictions for the first time in their history. The biggest change from Stage 1 to Stage 2 fire restrictions to visitors is that no open campfires are allowed anywhere – only petroleum fueled stoves that can be shut off with a valve are legal.

It has been interesting to read some of the comments on the Rio Grande National Forest’s Facebook page concerning fire restrictions. Some people have suggested we shut down the forest to public use, while others are thankful the Forest has stayed open. It is a big step to shut down a national forest as it has a negative impact on the local economy, but then so does a big fire. We have been lucky this year on the Rio Grande National Forest; although we have been very dry, we haven’t been as dry as some of our neighbors.

The Forest Service uses a standard set of seven criteria and professional judgement to determine if fire restrictions are needed including fuel moisture content; energy release component (a measure of how hot a fire will burn); fire danger rating; existing fires and their impact on the availability of firefighting resources; number of human caused fires in the area; current and predicted weather conditions; and zone fire preparedness level.

Some of these criteria are based on several other indices that then generate a number or rating. There is a lot of work that goes into gathering the data that is used for the criteria. Fire restrictions are determined based on professional judgement and the number of the criteria that surpass certain thresholds. Professional judgement especially comes into play when considering moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2, or Stage 2 to Stage 3 fire restrictions.

Human behavior is a big factor in determining when to move to the higher restrictions. For example, when considering moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2, decision makers look at human behavior in campgrounds. Are campers making huge campfires that put out a lot of sparks? Are campers leaving their fires unattended, thus increasing the risk of an escaped campfire?

Moving from Stage 2 to Stage 3 fire restrictions is a big step that isn’t taken lightly since it involves closing the forest to public use. Human behavior often plays a big role with this decision too. One of the reasons the Sante Fe National Forest initiated Stage 3 fire restrictions is because there were 120 escaped illegal campfires after lower fire restrictions were put in place.

The Rio Grande National Forest has pulled in additional resources to assist with both initial attack on new fire starts and with providing fire prevention information and education. Two public information officers were recruited from outside our area to post fire prevention information and visit businesses, visitor centers and campgrounds. Additional engines and crews, and a forest protection officer are also out on the Forest talking to people camping outside of campgrounds.

These efforts are designed to increase the odds that visitors will comply with the current fire restrictions, which in turn, will hopefully reduce the chance of human-caused fires and the need to go into higher fire restrictions.

Stay safe out there.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.


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