The Cortez Fire Protection District lowered the fire danger level to “moderate” after spouts of heavy rainfall last week.
However, a fire ban remains in effect in Montezuma County, a decision made by the Board of County Commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office.
Matt Shethar, wildlands coordinator for the Cortez Fire Protection District, decides when to raise or lower fire danger warnings, but his decisions are based on wildfire fuel data collected by the U.S. Forest Service.
The moisture content of grass, brush and dead sticks, as well as the week’s projected average temperature and humidity level, play roles in determining the city’s level of fire danger. Shethar said he also considers the intensity and direction of winds, as well as staffing levels of nearby firefighting resources.
Weeks before the heavy rains, fire conditions were “as extreme as it gets,” Shethar said. But around 2 inches of rain in the past week has added moisture in the air and in the ground, reducing the chance of a wildfire.
“We want to make sure we are representative of what the fuels are,” Shethar said.
The U.S. Forest Service has loosened fire restrictions to Stage 1, meaning campfires are allowed in designated campgrounds and wilderness fire spots. The Bureau of Land Management also on Wednesday rolled back fire restrictions in the San Luis Valley, which includes including Alamosa, Rio Grande, Conejos, Costilla and Saguache counties.
But Field Office Manager Melissa Garcia emphasized in a press release that a reduced fire danger doesn’t mean there is no fire danger.
“Conditions can vary by day and by location, so we urge the public to be careful with fire and use common sense when having fires on public land,” Garcia said.
Shethar said that Montezuma County usually follows the lead of the two federal agencies and removes the strict fire ban, but the county is drier than Forest Service land because of its lower elevation.
“We need to be careful,” Shethar said.
Residents can request a burn permit for piles of fuel like sticks and leaves, as well as other natural waste. The Cortez Fire Protection District inspects the pile and the area before allowing residents to start the fire.
Shethar warned that the heavy rains caused only a temporary pause in otherwise dry conditions, which he expects will return next week.
“We are still putting out fires,” Shethar said. And there were three big lightning strikes that hit nearby only two days ago, a common cause of wildfires.
He urged residents to continue to take fire precautions, despite the moderate fire danger level.