Multiple signs along US 24 and Colorado Highway 67 in Teller County alert drivers that the fire danger is very high and that restrictions are in effect. But far too many people camping in the Pike National Forest over Memorial Day weekend ignored those warnings. Rangers doused 212 illegal or abandoned campfires during the three-day weekend.
Even more alarming was the attitude of people they caught with illegal campfires. Many knew it was wrong but wanted to keep the fire burning anyway.
"They don’t see the consequences of their actions," said Evelyn Morgan, a spokesperson for the US Forest Services. "It was, write me a ticket, let me build my campfire."
Conditions in the forest are dangerously dry. Streams are flowing at only 8 percent of capacity due to lower than average winter snowpack. Low humidity and high temperatures have caused the vegetation to become combustible.
The Forest Service put Stage One fire restrictions in place as a result of the conditions. The only place a camper can start a campfire is in a designated metal fire ring. They have only been installed in developed campsites.
"There’s not anything around that would catch on fire, it’s sand and gravel for a good four feet all the way around," said Morgan.
Camping in these developed campgrounds costs money, and most of the reservations filled up months ago. Morgan encourages campers who plan to stay in the open forest to plan ahead and know the weather conditions. She also recommends buying a propane-powered fire pit. Like a cook stove or lantern, these fire pits are permitted because they come equipped with an emergency shut off valves.
"They give you the feel and the light from a fireplace, you know, from a fire pit and its legal. It takes about 3 or 4 minutes to set up, your propane tank connects to it and you’re ready to go."
Anyone ticketed for starting an illegal campfire faces a minimum $300 fine. The officer also has the discretion to require the accused to appear in court where a judge can sentence a fine of up to $5,000 and 6 months in jail.
If campfire starts a wildfire, then the responsible party can be required to pay for the cost of putting it out.