EAGLE COUNTY — We’ll start with the sobering news: As we settle into summer, we’re also settling into wildfire season. Here’s the better news: This season is starting far later than it has in 2012 or 2013.
Local fire chiefs for the past few summers have met weekly — mostly via conference calls — to discuss conditions in their communities and to further refine strategies and tactics if a wildfire should erupt. Last year, those conversations began in May. This year, the first of those conference calls came last week.
Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation officer, said the calls haven’t been needed until recently thanks to a normal winter and cool spring. That means we aren’t close to imposing fire bans, and local fireworks show are almost certain to go on as scheduled.
‘RED FLAG’ WARNINGS
On the other hand, much of the county — higher elevations excepted — has been placed under “red flag” warnings several times during the past week or so. Those warnings are issued when a combination of warm temperatures, strong winds and low precipitation raise the danger of wildfires.
As you’d expect, the lower-elevation areas of the valley dry out first. And there was a small fire on Sunday in Gypsum, where the hillside between Eagle Valley High School and the Gypsum Sports Complex burned for a time. The fire was quickly put out, thanks to the now-standard strategy of quickly throwing a lot of firefighting resources into just about any fire that burns anywhere near a populated area.
PREPARING FOR THE FOURTH
With little precipitation in the forecast for the next week or so, local officials are nervous about what the Fourth of July holiday might bring.
Avon Mayor Rich Carroll said that town is well-prepared for the July 3 Salute to the USA celebration.
“We have a great advantage of shooting (fireworks) over the lake,” Carroll said. And with long practice at handling both the show and thousands of visitors, Carroll said that part of the weekend’s festivities is in good hands.
What’s trickier is those who use personal fireworks. While fireworks that fly or explode are illegal in Colorado, those fireworks are easy enough to find on a trip to New Mexico or Wyoming, and there always seem to be plenty of bottle rockets and other flying, popping gizmos around on the Fourth. Just one of those fireworks, or even a sparkler — which can burn at about 1,200 degrees — can quickly set fire to a patch of dry grass.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller said personal fireworks are just one reason fire crews up and down the valley will be on high alert over the weekend.
“We’ll have extra crews on, especially on the Fourth,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of potential for incidents.”
VIGILANCE FROM THE PUBLIC
Miller said firefighters and police officers will be looking carefully for smoke or the sparkling debris from personal fireworks. But, he said, officials have had more help from the public during the past couple of summers.
“People are becoming much more vigilant,” Miller said. That extra vigilance really started in 2012, when a severe drought hit all of Colorado. Thousands of acres and scores of homes were destroyed that summer in fires on the state’s Eastern Slope. Those natural disasters prompted local officials to start a series of educational seminars called Ready, Set, Go, in an effort to help people understand how to protect themselves and their property.
The 2012 seminars were well-attended. The first, in Vail, packed the fire station in West Vail. Lovgren said similar seminars this summer haven’t been as well-attended, due, no doubt, to fewer fires in the state and region.
Still, Miller said, the awareness that started in the drought years has carried over for a number of people.
“It pays to be over-vigilant,” Miller said. “We’d rather have that.”
Miller said over the past couple of summers, there have been calls on windy days that turned out to be clouds of pollen and not smoke. But, he said, that beats the alternative of ignoring smoke.
And Lovgren, Miller and Carroll all urged people not to use their own fireworks in town on the Fourth or if they’re out camping.
“We’re at a point where it no longer makes sense to have personal fireworks,” Miller said. “Especially over the last 15 years or so, it’s become a different world. It’s just not worth the risk.”