Does fire threat drop as trees fall? |

Does fire threat drop as trees fall?

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyVail Wildland Fire Hand Crew member Ray Dixon removes limbs from a fallen beetle kill tree this summer in Vail.

VAIL ” Last winter, Rick Sackbauer’s family had a close brush with a wildfire ” one that happened around the world.

The family hosted an Australian exchange student as fires threatened the student’s home Down Under.

For Sackbauer, it made the potential devastation of a wildfire very personal ” and underscored the threat to Vail, too.

“It happened in Australia, it happened in California, and it could happen in Vail,” Sackbauer said.

Sackbauer lives in a neighborhood above West Vail, near the dying forest. More and more trees are turning red as they succumb to the effects of the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

Local foresters predict that up to 90 percent of lodgepole pines will die in some areas near West Vail. Local firefighters say that creates a veritable tenderbox that could easily ignite and spread.

Sackbauer was pleased to see lots of work being done near his home this summer to reduce the risk of fire spreading, either from the forest into the neighborhood, or vice versa.

“It’s amazing what they cut,” Sackbauer said.

This summer, about 8,000 dead and dying trees were cut around Vail because of town, county and Forest Service efforts. The size of this summer’s efforts dwarfs similar work in previous years.

About 6,500 of those trees were carried by helicopter out of the forest and hauled to a Kremmling company that will use them for biomass energy.

Confluence Energy’s Mark Mathis said that wood from around Vail can heat 1,000 homes for a winter. The company is now building a wood-pellet plant that will open in February or March.

The pine-beetle epidemic has created a vast amount of raw material for biomass energy. The company is using lumber from Grand, Summit, Routt, Clear Creek and Eagle counties.

“We call it making lemonade out of lemons,” he said.

Confluence Energy sells biomass furnaces that can heat homes. The company in discussions with the town of Vail about using biomass to heat some of its facilities like its bus barn, Mathis said.

It’s also talking to Vail Resorts about using biomass to heat Mid-Vail and Two Elk Lodge, Mathis said.

Above parts of West Vail, workers created a 200- to 300-foot barrier of “defensible space,” a clear-cut area that aims to help stop the spread of fire.

The town also hired a six-man “hand crew” to cut trees on town-owned land around Vail. The crew cut trees in East Vail, on the Golf Course and up Red Sandstone Creek. The firefighters also helped battle several wildfires around Eagle County this summer.

More tree-cutting is scheduled for next year. Workers will be higher above West Vail, cutting trees near Game Creek Bowl.

Jerry Stevens, another resident of West Vail, said he was appreciative of the work that occurred this summer. Stevens’ home abuts the forest, and, for him, the threat of fire is real. The helicopter has been hovering above his home for the last couple of weeks removing the felled trees.

“They really accomplished a lot in a short period of time,” he said.

The large amount of trees that were removed has been quite noticeable, Stevens said.

“It just shows you how extensive the damage is,” he said.

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

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