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La Plata County downgrades to Stage 2 fire restrictions

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018 2:20 PM
A gamble oak leaf that burned in the 416 Fire but didn't turn into ash. La Plata County commissioners on Wednesday downgraded Stage 3 fire restrictions to Stage 2 restrictions.

La Plata County on Wednesday downgraded to Stage 2 fire restrictions.

In a unanimous vote, La Plata County commissioners decided that with more moisture in the region, which has tempered fire danger, the county no longer needed to be in Stage 3 - the most stringent listing for rules.

"All the evidence we have from a scientific standpoint doesn't support Stage 3," said Commissioner Julie Westendorff.

La Plata County enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions on June 12, after having enacted Stage 2 restrictions on May 31.

Stage 2 restrictions ban campfires, open fires, smoking outside, welding and fireworks, among other measures. The only major difference between Stage 2 and Stage 3 is that Stage 3 bans coal-fired engines, such as those used by Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad locomotives, as well as flaring at gas well sites.

The D&SNG intends to resume service Thursday after shutting down June 1, the day the 416 Fire broke out. No representatives with the train spoke at Wednesday's meeting.

La Plata County fire chiefs and La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith recommended the county downgrade all the way to Stage 1 fire restrictions.

But La Plata County commissioners said making the jump from Stage 3 to Stage 1 was too premature, especially since rains have been spotty and inconsistent in recent days.

While Southwest Colorado has received some rain, the region remains in an exceptional drought. Local fire chiefs based their recommendation, in part, on the prediction of significant rains later this week.

There was also a strong push from the public to not downgrade. More than 25 people sent letters in opposition and several people in attendance spoke out against lowering restrictions.

"Before we do anything with the fire restrictions ... wouldn't it be prudent to wait a couple days and see if ... the rain actually materializes," said Dave Harris, who lives south of Purgatory Resort.

Other Colorado counties, such as Chaffee and Jefferson, remain in Stage 2 restrictions, despite being listed in a lower drought category than La Plata County, Harris pointed out.

Hanna Pierce, a Durango resident and owner of the Conundrum Escape Room, said she came to the meeting with the intention of demanding all fire restrictions be lifted. But after learning about conditions on the ground, she asked commissioners exercise caution.

"I think maybe we need a few more days to see how the monsoon patterns are happening," she said. "The safety of this community is far more important."

Commissioners ultimately decided to take the route other agencies in the region are taking: wait to see if rains materialize this weekend to justify further lessening, or possibly even lifting, fire restrictions.

Richard Bustamante, fire staff officer for the San Juan National Forest, said all restrictions on the forest could be lifted in coming days - if the rains arrive.

"We want to make sure the monsoons set in tonight or tomorrow, and through the weekend," he said.

Westendorff said it's a tough call to go against the recommendation of local fire chiefs, but in this case, Stage 2 rather than Stage 1 is the right call.

"We have a community that obviously doesn't want to rush too fast," she said.

The county will meet next week to evaluate what impacts the rain has had over the weekend, and if further lessening of fire restrictions is justified.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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