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March 20, 2013
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Eagle County-area wildfire season nears

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - The weather has a lot to say about this, but this year's wildfire season is off to a start similar to the season last year.

There's already been a large fire on the Front Range, near Fort Collins. And the snowpack in our area is just about as low as it was last year - although the storms have been better-timed for skiers and snowboarders.

The early signs have local fire officials preparing for what could be a long, smoky summer.

Around the valley, local fire departments in May will roll out a second season of last year's successful "Ready, Set, Go!" fire preparedness classes. Those classes - which help residents understand what they can do if a wildfire forces them to evacuate their homes - last year drew hundreds of people to meetings spread out between Vail and Gypsum.

Local fire chiefs are also polishing up tactics developed last year, particularly one that put as much manpower and equipment into a fire as early as possible.

"When we have a confirmed report of a wildfire... we'll hit it hard and fast," Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller said. "It was very successful last year.

Miller said a combination of putting a lot of manpower into a fire scene as quickly as possible helped contain a fire near Eagle last year. County wildfire mitigation manager Eric Lovgren said that fire "had the potential" to get much larger and more destructive before it was contained. A small fire in Vail was also held down by putting people and equipment into the area as soon as possible.

Another part of that fast-attack strategy includes air support. Much of that support last year came from Colorado National Guard helicopters and an accurate map of available streams and ponds those choppers could use to fill water buckets.

But how much federal help will be available this summer remains a question. In the wake of federal budget cutbacks earlier this year U.S. Forest Service officials released statements indicating that this fire season might see a reduction in federal resources available to fight wildland fires.

Lovgren said local fire officials are already preparing for fewer federal firefighters.

"We've been talking with (homeowners associations), and people are getting ready," Lovgren said.

But federal resources also include air tankers.

With the federal air tanker fleet already much smaller than it was a decade ago, a pair of state lawmakers - Grand Junction Republican Steve King and Wheat Ridge Democrat Cheri Jahn - have co-sponsored a bill to establish the state's own tanker fleet.

"Having that available, and making sure they're in the state when they're needed, is an asset that we need," Eagle River Fire Protection District Chief Karl Bauer said. "But whether it's affordable, whether it can be maintained and sustained is the question."

Lovgren said California has had its own fleet for a number of years. But, he said, a state-run tanker fleet probably wouldn't require many, if any, big, multi-engined tankers - the biggest available these days is a jumbo jet that can pour thousands of gallons of retardant on a fire in a single drop.

Lovgren said local wildland fires have been helped by either single-engine, fixed-wing planes or helicopters, which can more easily get to hard-to-reach hillsides.

While local officials are already planning, they're also hoping and praying this spring won't be as dry as spring and early summer last year, when Vail went several weeks in May and June before some timely July rains eased the fire danger.

"We've talked for a while that it's not if, but when," a major wildfire strikes the county, Miller said. "Our best defense is being prepared."

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Mar 20, 2013 10:13PM Published Mar 20, 2013 10:11PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.