Eagle County fire season opens quietly
EAGLE COUNTY — Eric Lovgren is breathing easy — or at least easier than he was this time last year. Meanwhile, a pair of cabinet secretaries used a May 13 conference call to warn of the potential dangers of federal budget cutbacks.
Lovgren is in charge of Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation efforts. In that job, he tries to coordinate the county’s various state, federal and local firefighting agencies so they work together as efficiently as possible when a wildfire strikes. Lovgren also tries to educate residents of the “wildland urban interface” about ways to protect their homes if wildfire strikes.
Last year, Lovgren and other local fire officials were as tense as they’d ever been, due to a prolonged drought and hot spring weather. Fire restrictions were already in place by mid-May of 2012.
This year is different. A wet April and — so far — cool May have kept fire danger down, despite the National Weather Service issuing a handful of “red flag” fire danger warnings over the course of the week.
Justin Kirkland of the Gypsum Fire Department said those warnings often have more to do with wind than fuel moisture, so it’s not unusual to see warnings on days when other conditions aren’t conducive to wildfire. The day of a destructive mobile home fire in Dotsero was a red flag day, Kirkland said, and that wind made that fire far more dangerous.
Still Lovgren and local fire chiefs continue to work on ways to make life less dangerous for residents who live at the edge of public lands.
This year brings a second round of “Ready, Set, Go!” preparedness seminars to the county. This year’s seminars haven’t been as well attended as the ones last year — particularly one that brought hundreds to Vail — but Lovgren said the sessions so far have still drawn respectable crowds.
Then there’s the work with chain saws and other hand tools, clearing areas between neighborhoods and public lands. There’s some county-sponsored work going on in Eagle County this year — as well as a few projects on public lands using grant money. But, according U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Eagle County this year is an exception.
The two cabinet secretaries, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency Fire Administration Administrator Ernest Mitchell, spent much of a Monday conference call talking about effects mandatory budget cuts — from the “sequestration” process — will have on federal wildland firefighting efforts this year.
Vilsack said there will be about 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire trucks on the job this year due to the cuts.
“We’ll do the best we can to protect people and property,” Vilsack said.
But, Jewell added, firefighting will be done at the expense of habitat restoration and other projects essential before, and after, fires strike.
And, while this part of Colorado can take a slight breather from fire alerts, other, large parts of the West remain tinder-dry.
California has had less than 25 percent of its usual precipitation so far this year, and officials are predicting an active fire season for the Pacific Northwest, Montana and Idaho.
Those areas will all use a lot of state, federal and local manpower and equipment.
Here, Lovgren said that cutbacks in federal firefighting aren’t a big concern — at least now.
“It will have a ripple effect,” Lovgren said of the cutbacks. “But I don’t think there are too many situations where (the cutbacks) would allow fire to rip into a city.”
On the other hand, Lovgren said, there could be areas away from populated areas that might burn longer due to stretched-thin resources. And, he added, the federal firefighting “machine” simply can’t be responsible for all the costs associated with wildfires.
“That’s why you’ve seen us work on how we build homes and neighborhoods,” Lovgren said.
And, he added, last year’s drought, along with huge fires on the Front Range, have focused people’s attention.
Over the last year, Lovgren said he and other local fire managers have worked with people taking on work on their own homes and properties. Much of that work has been on small items, including roofs, vents, and other potentially fire-encouraging problems.
When it comes to protecting your home, it seems, vigilance starts with the owner.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.