Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

It's ditch burning season


February 5, 2020

Courtesy Photo

Whittemeyer Property

It's ditch burning season in Boulder County.

And that means Seth McKinney and Nick Stremel are starting to gear up. McKinney is a Fire Management Officer for the Boulder County Sheriff's office. Stremel is a Resource Specialist with Boulder County's Forestry department.

And these two county branches team up to burn ditches. The sheriff's office has the equipment and experience, and Stremel acts as a liaison with Parks and Open Space. "He tells the knuckle-draggers the science," joked McKinney.

The county burns ditches on its open space properties and easements, and it usually owns water rights in those ditches.

The objective of burning ditches is to clear brush so that ditches can flow unimpeded in spring. The alternative to burning is manual removal using excavators, tractors, and hours of labor. With burning, the process is quick. "A lot of our ditch projects are one day projects, and truly half-an-hour," said McKinney.

Ditch burning is planned well in advance. "It would be nice if we could pick a ditch and burn it on the same day," said Stremel. "But ditch burning is proposed through Parks and Open Space." Water resources staff identify priorities, various "-ologists" chime in with ecological considerations, and then a plan is made and passed along for implementation.

Six to twelve primary properties, including several in Niwot, are burned annually. Most are not burned that often. This year, the county is targeting six ditches, which can be viewed on the Boulder County website, but exact dates for burning depend entirely on weather conditions.

The best window for ditch burning is between November and April, when the primary fuel is dry grass. Residual snowmelt helps keep fires in check, but the sheriff's office comes equipped with off-road fire engines and other precautionary equipment.

Stremel and McKinney also pay close attention to wind direction. "We don't want to send too much smoke into peoples' homes..." said McKinney. They are also careful to make sure smoke doesn't obscure roadways, get too close to oil and gas infrastructure, or impact critical wildlife like nesting eagles.

The county also avoids burning on Air Action Days, when air quality is poor.

Private agricultural landowners do not always follow these precautions. "Legally there are very few to no regulations, as long as it stays on their land," said McKinney. Agricultural burning is exempt from Air Action Days, burn bans, and the 6400 elevation line. Why? "Because it's a big tool. We want to encourage it, but we want to encourage it safely."

Just last year, four ditch fires on private property got out of control; one burned 100 acres of the farmer's property. "People sometimes forget just how quickly things can escalate and become a problem," said McKinney. McKinney hopes that one day, the sheriff's office will be able to assist with ditch burning on private property. At the moment, for liability issues, their assistance is restricted to giving advice.

But McKinney encourages agricultural property owners to at least get in touch. "It's not a law, but we really encourage people doing ag burning to call our dispatch center just to give them a notification--Hey, I'm going to be burning my ditch, don't send the fire department out on me."

Right now, the county is working on putting all county ditches under a single burn plan. They are also waiting for the last remnants of snow to melt so they can get going. "We're getting really close to starting," said Stremel.


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