A neighborhood fights fires | VailDaily.com

A neighborhood fights fires

Cliff Thompson

With wiffs of smoke and a smudge from a fire 40 miles away clouding the horizon, a group of 25 volunteers worked last week on a project on a hillside in West Vail that they hope will have some lasting consequences.

Many hands hauled old logs, bushes, sagebrush and debris from around homes on Chamonix Lane, to a waiting dump truck. It’s hot, sweaty, dirty work, but the results are obvious to even a casual observer.

They were creating defensible space around homes built where wildfires have room to spread, to help protect them against wildfires. Last year in Colorado hundreds of homes were lost when huge wildfires burned more than 350,000 acres. Many of those homes had no defensible space, which deprives fires of fuel while providing firefighters a safe place from which to fight the fire.

“It’s great,” said homeowner Darlene Borstad, who has lived there since 1977. “We’ve had three fires on this hill. It’ll keep things cleaned up and help educate people on all of this.”

She said it’s the first time she can recall creating any defensible space around her home.

Her home lies in what fire managers call the wildland/urban interface, and it’s potentially in harm’s way should a fire – like the recent Crater fire near Dotsero, 40 miles away – break out near Vail. Depriving a fire of fuel near homes will slow its spread and help keep it away from homes.

Working together

The program, Vail Defensible Space Project, was pulled together by Vail Environmental officer Bill Carlson, and it involved members of the Colorado and U.S. Forest Service, homeowners, members of the Boy Scouts working as members of the Eagle County Youth Conservation Corps; neighbors; and others.

It’s one of a series of baby steps in a program being duplicated in many parts of the county that may never end. Nearly a century of fire suppression has left forests dependent on fire to sweep fuel away, now choked with fuelwood and ready to burn. If a big fire does break out, it won’t know the difference between a spruce tree and a cedar deck.

The issue of unhealthy forests and wildfires also is a hot one politically.

Partisan bickering over how the address the issue has slowed any potential solution.

“We know where the homes are,” said volunteer Tom Fry of The Wilderness Society. “We don’t know where the fires will be breaking out.”

In the short term, taking care of that space near homes is the most prudent course of actions for public safety agencies and for homeowners, fire experts say.

“Once we get the message out, we have the homeowners behind us,” he said.

Carlson said other defensible space projects will be carried out in East Vail and elsewhere this summer.

“A regulatory hornet’s nest’

Defensible space is just part of the equation. Many homes are built with flammable wood siding and shake or wood shingle roofing material, Carlson said. That’s something that has to change, and it’s going to require new regulations.

“It’ll be a regulatory hornet’s nest,” he predicts.

But the politics and regulation of fire prevention don’t matter for Boy Scouts, like Matt Brubaker and Rudy Olin, who were hauling loads to the drop-off point.

“We get paid so we get to go to events and we get to help the community,” Brubaker said.

“We get to help prevent forest fires,” Olin said.

“It’s a wonderful example of the type of program we’d like to see in our community,” said Vail fire captain Cooter Overcash. “It’s not just the owners (of property), it’s also people from across the street, too.”

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com.

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