Tuesday brought with it an early evening thunderstorm that included lightening in the upper end of the valley. That lightening struck the eastern flank of Whetstone Mountain and started a fire. Smoke was seen from throughout the valley. It’s not a situation anyone wants to experience but dry summer conditions make it more likely.
According to Crested Butte Fire Protection District Fire Chief Ric Ems, the strike ignited some dry undergrowth just before 6 p.m. Several calls were received by the Gunnison Dispatch and the local department responded immediately with 16 volunteers. The crew located the fire and extinguished it pretty quickly. “I was driving into town and saw the smoke and a bunch of people called 911,” Ems said. “The fire was not too big, about 20 square feet. The flames were about one to two feet in height when we arrived. It was on the edge of that major avalanche path that has a bunch of aspens in it but it was the dead undergrowth that was burning.” Ems said the call came in about 5:45 p.m. and crews were on the scene until about 8:30 p.m. He said the situation was handled very smoothly. “We appreciate the sense of awareness from people. Let us know if you see anything. It’s the time of year that is most dangerous,” Ems said. “Everyone needs to be careful out there.” In that regard, Gunnison County, the Forest Service and BLM are enacting Stage 1 fire restrictions starting on Monday morning, June 24 at 12:01 a.m. That means no open wood or charcoal fires, agricultural burning, or burning trash and debris. There are also restrictions in place for outdoor cigarette smoking. Private fireworks and explosives are also prohibited, but provided that conditions don’t get drier, the Rotary Club of Gunnison and Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte public displays still have the green light. Last year, the county implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions more than a month sooner—the first time since 2006. This year, the county, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are all implementing the restrictions on the same day. Gunnison fire marshal Dennis Spritzer said the fire department talked with regional and local fire groups before recommending that the County Commissioners implement restrictions. “Based on a lot of the fuel moisture information, we feel it’s time for Stage 1 fire restrictions,” Spritzer told the commissioners on June 18. “We’re going to all do it together on the same day so it lessens confusion for the public.” The restrictions do allow for some recreational fires, including liquid- or gas-fired stoves, charcoal grills, wood-burning stoves, and small campfires in pre-fabricated concrete or metal fire enclosures in established campgrounds or on private property. Campfire flames should not exceed two feet in height. Fire officials will continue to monitor fuel moisture in coming weeks, and are looking to summer rains to keep the restrictions from escalating. “Hopefully we won’t have to go to Stage 2. We need the monsoons,” Spritzer said.