Increased fire risk for many homes in Vail
November 25, 2013
VAIL — Homes that back up to public land are some of the most desirable properties in the Vail Valley. But those homes may also be more at risk if a wildfire starts near town.
In the wake of several Front Range wildfires in 2012 and this year that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, state and local officials have been trying to find ways to evaluate the risk for neighborhoods in and near what's called the "wildland/urban interface," the area where private property meets national forest land. The Vail Fire Department during the past several months has completed a big step in evaluating that risk in what may be the valley's most at-risk town.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller unveiled the results of that project at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Vail Town Council — a map that evaluated the wildfire danger facing every private home in Vail. The map also looks at the possible fire danger for homes outside town boundaries that the department protects. The project took the department, as well as the town's global information systems people, about 400 man-hours to complete.
It was a big job — more than 2,900 individual homes were examined. All were photographed from public property, Miller said, so not all homes got a 360-degree view. Still, there are some sobering findings.
“You can never fully eliminate fire danger. But we’re much better off than we were even five years ago.”
District ranger for U.S. Forest Service
The most potentially dire of those findings is that 42 percent of homes in Vail are considered at "high" risk for wildfire damage.
The map is currently available on the town's website, and Miller said people can search for property by either its street address or parcel number. Viewers can use maps from either 2008 — which are more detailed — or more up-to-date maps from 2011.
The maps are "fairly intuitive and specific," Miller said. "We feel good about the information here."
Dave Neely, the district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service's Holy Cross and Eagle ranger districts, feels pretty good about the information, too.
"The work the town of Vail has been doing is fantastic," Neely said, adding that the mapping project is part of a longer-term effort to help ease the fire danger along the town's borders.
Avoiding 'Crown Fires'
That effort includes work on Forest Service property, of course, but it also includes a lot of work on town-owned land between homes and federal land. For the past several summers, crews from the fire department have been working in the "wildland/urban interface" thinning trees and occasionally burning piles of cut material to build up fire resistance.
The idea, Neely said, is to help cut the prospect of "crown fires," fires that burn in the treetops and can consume vast swaths of forest before being contained. The goal, he said, is to have whatever fires start run along the ground, where crews have a better chance of controlling them.
The new map will help homeowners contribute to that effort on their own property, Miller said. Someone in a high-risk area might be able to take steps — from replacing a shake-shingle roof to just getting woodpiles off of back decks and creating fire-resistant spaces around homes.
At the Nov. 19 meeting, Miller and the council talked about the prospect of phasing out wooden-shingled roofs. Town code already prohibits new shake-shingled roofs, but officials from time to time talk about requiring homeowners to replace their roofs by certain dates. That could be tough for several reasons, not least of which is cost.
While the town officials will no doubt talk about policy for some time, Miller is most interested in how to get out word about the new map to homeowners. He also wants to let residents know that the map isn't going to affect their insurance rates.
"I called every major insurance carrier in the valley," Miller said. "To a person, they all said 'thank you' (for the work), and no way will they use this as a tool to adjust rates."
Meanwhile, the town will determine the best way to inform people about the new tool at their disposal.
Neely also outlined one of the ironies of the town's efforts to keep forest fires out — federal land managers are just as worried about a fire from town spilling onto federal land.
"You can never fully eliminate fire danger," Neely said. "But we're much better off than we were even five years ago."