Creating space between you and the fire |

Creating space between you and the fire

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyEagle County Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Eric Lovgren, right, cuts a tree into sections Thursday during a summer-long project to remove dying trees from the forest.

VAIL ” Nate Kohut has witnessed firsthand Vail’s growing pine-beetle problem over the last few years.

“It seems every time you go into West Vail, you spot another brown tree,” he said.

Kohut made sure there was at least one less brown tree in Vail on Thursday. He revved up his chain saw and felled a tree beside the 16th fairway of the Vail Golf Course.

Kohut is a member of a new summer wildland crew that’s part of the Vail Fire Department. The six-member team is cutting dead trees on town land and in the nearby national forest.

This summer, they will work with the U.S. Forest Service to create at 150-200-foot buffer between West Vail neighborhoods and the forest.

For firefighters, that “defensible space” is key to preventing the spread of a fire ” either from the forest into neighborhoods or vice versa.

“That’s what’s going to save the town, I think,” Kohut said.

Vail committed $99,000 to create the six-man team for the summer. Fire officials are hoping the crew will return in future years.

The work they are doing is part of the Vail Valley Forest Health Project, the Forest Service’s multi-year outline of tree-cutting, brush-clearing and prescribed burns. The impetus for the plan is the local mountain pine beetle epidemic, which has killed 90 percent of lodgepole pines in some areas above West Vail.

The town of Vail has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the plan over several years.

The six-person wildland group ” the town is still hiring one other member ” would respond to a wildland fire if one occurs in Vail. They might be responsible for cutting a firebreak line to stop the spread of a wildfire, said Vail Fire Chief John Gulick.

The group could also respond to a fire elsewhere in Eagle County, or in other states, if help is needed.

When it comes to a big wildfire in Vail, firefighters speak in terms of “when,” not “if.”

“There’s going to be a fire that comes through here,” said Tom Talbot, wildland division coordinator for the Vail Fire Department. “It’s just a matter of when.”

The group is also available to advise homeowners about how they can get rid of beetle-killed trees or create “defensible space” around their homes.

On Thursday, the group was cutting trees beside the golf course. Kohut cut down a brown lodgepole pine, and then the other members of the crew went to work cutting off the smaller branches. They then cut the tree into stumps, which they arranged into piles.

Not only is the tree a fire risk, Talbot said, it could also be a safety danger.

Pine-beetle-killed trees’ roots become weak, and they can fall over more easily, he said.

Some of the wood will be used for chips, and some of the branches will be burned this fall.

They had seven trees to cut Thursday, and will move on to other town-owned land in Vail to cut more trees in the following weeks.

For Kohut, the outdoors are the ideal office.

“I love it,” he said. “That’s the best part of the job.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or

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