EAGLE COUNTY — If there’s one thing that recent rain and snowstorms mean, it’s that Eagle County is off to a safe start in the dreaded wildfire season.
Typically, wildfires in Colorado follow a certain pattern — there is increased risk in spring, when the snow recedes and the vegetation hasn’t regrown yet. Then there’s the latter part of summer, when high temperatures and low humidity can create dry conditions that fuel wildfires.
Fortunately for Eagle County and the rest of Colorado, the outlook is better this year than in previous summers based on snowpack levels and the wet spring that Colorado has seen. A number of agencies have labeled the summer forecast as anywhere from low-to-moderate risk.
A special committee of state and national officials recently released a report to Gov. John Hickenlooper that said Colorado could expect a “moderate” fire season. (See the full report at http://dfs.state.co.us/).
The National Predictive Services said that for the Rocky Mountains, wildland fire potential is expected to be normal for May and June and below normal in July and August.
““We’re not in El Nino or La Nina weather pattern. Things should be looking good in Colorado and the High Rockies,” said Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s Wildfire Mitigation Manager. Officials and fire experts still warn that the forecast is no reason not to be prepared or relaxed when it comes to fire preparedness. Summit County already saw its first spring wildfire in early May, although Lovgren points out that Summit County is in a special situation due to its abundance of pine beetle kill.
“If we continue getting good afternoon moisture in afternoons, we can all take a breath,” said Lovgren. “But if we get into June and it’s dry, then in late summer we could have big fires in remote areas. Even on a moderate-risk years that’s a concern.”
He also warns that residual damage from previous years’ drought can affect our forests this summer.
“At this time last year, we were still deep into a drought cycle. That plays into this year, too, because it takes a few years to recover from that. There are still a lot of dry, downed trees out there.”
In Eagle County, a number of safety agencies, including the fire districts, will host two Ready Set Go sessions in Eagle and Vail, designed to help local residents prepare their homes and families for wildfire. (See www.readysetgoec.com for details.)
The sessions will cover how to create “defensible space” — or space around a building maintained to reduce fire danger, evacuation procedures and what to expect in case of wildfire. While much of the material may sound like common sense, Lovgren said that attendees often come with a number of misconceptions and leave with many simple, low-cost ways to make their homes safer.
“First off, there’s no such thing as fireproofing. You can only do things that will help you be more prepared in case of a fire,” he said. “Often, people just don’t think it will happen to them. There’s an idea people sometimes have that in a wildfire situation, there will be a fire engine in every driveway, which is not the case. Dedicated emergency professionals will be there to help keep them safe, but whether or not they can protect their homes has to do what the residents have done to prepare the battlefield.”
That checklist includes easy-to-do tasks such as removing firewood from the deck, cleaning out gutters, having a reflective address number (so fire crews can find your address in the dark or in smoke), clearing things out from under your deck, trimming the tall grass around the home and trimming trees up to eight feet high.
“Many people store wood or other combustibles on or under a wood deck,” said Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller. “You’ll also want to get those dead, dry pine needles off your roof and gutters, Those are easy sparks for embers to get into your home. Many people don’t realize that fire can spread in the air.”
More costly precautions include replacing wood-shingle roofs, replacing wooden decks and putting screens on vents that open to the outside, he said.
You can also get a free fire inspection for your home by calling Lovgren at 970-328-8742 or contacting your local fire district. A wildfire professional will walk through your home with you and give recommendations on how to make your home safer from wildfire free of charge.
Vail’s wildfire crew arrives
On May 12, Vail’s specialized wildfire crews arrived — the season crew of six firefighters respond to wildfire calls in the area, as well as log downed and dead trees in the forest throughout the summer.
According to Miller, Vail is one of the few communities with a staffed wildfire crew.
“You don’t find many of these types of crews around. Many towns don’t have the money to fund it. Our town council felt we should do everything we could do to help prevent wildfires, and we feel it has been well worth the effort,” said Miller.
He encouraged valley residents to not only be prepared for the season, but also to be vigilant.
“‘Tis the season. Even though it’s snowing and raining, it just takes a couple warm days and some wind to dry things out rather quickly,” said Miller. “We want people to be very vigilant, being careful how they use fire and notifying us as soon as they see smoke, even if they think it might not be a wildfire. For us, early detection is key.”