Eagle County gears up for fire season
April’s showers and May’s flowers have made little difference on Eagle County’s wildfire risk this summer. “Just because it rains for a few days straight it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods,” said Carol Mulson, assistant chief for the Eagle River Fire Protection District.Firefighting districts across the county are planning on a dry and potentially risky wildfire season this summer. Nevertheless, Eagle County has yet to follow Summit County’s decision to declare an outdoor fire ban.Chiefs in wait-and-see modeDeclaring an outdoor fire ban is ultimately the job of Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy, who consults the county’s fire chiefs before making his decision. County officials typically begin considering fire bans in May or June, signaling that the area’s fire risk is high. But Summit County officials began placing restrictions in March. The restrictions ban the use of solid-fuel fires expect in constructed fire pits with a grate. When a ban is in place, only cooking on gas-fueled stoves and grills is allowed on public lands. Charcoal-fueled stoves and grills are allowed only on private property.
“In Vail we are looking pretty good,” said Vail Chief John Gulick. “We’re not too concerned yet. But if we continue to have a lot of relatively windy days, the vegetation is going to dry out a lot quicker.”Fire danger is usually high when winter ends and snow begins to melt away, but vegetation and trees are still dry and brown. That time has already passed and last week’s rain and light snow has helped.”Things are getting a little better,” said Eric Rebitzke, a U.S. Forest Service fire manager based in Eagle. “Things are greening up.”All indicators show a fairly normal fire season, as of now,” he said. “But if we don’t get any more spring moisture the rest of the way, and if things are hot and dry, that will change pretty quickly.”Like several fire chiefs across the state, Gulick was dismayed to hear that all air tankers used to spray fire retardant over forest fires have been grounded for safety reasons. Air tankers are typically used to put down fires that are spreading along the forest canopy. Smaller, single-engine planes and helicopters will still be used.”If we don’t the availability of fixed-wing aircraft we are going to be in trouble if there is a big fire,” he said.While fire bans seem to be annual occurrence, Chief Charlie Moore, with the Eagle River fire district, can remember a time when fire bans weren’t necessary. “There have been summers that have been very wet,” he said. “We’ve been fighting this drought since 1996. (Fire bans) probably are normal for a drought. We are in extraordinary periods of weather and it’s just not what I’ve been used to.”Fuel for the fireDespite its thick forests and steep mountains, Vail and other places upvalley may be at less risk of having a dangerous wildfire than places like Denver. The secret is in the trees.All forests have a fire cycle – a period of time in which forests have recovered enough from a fire to generate fuel for another fire. Most of the trees in Vail, Minturn and Avon are spruce fir or lodge pole trees, which have a fire cycle between 150 and 300 years, Rebitzke said.This differs from the type of forests found along the Front Range, where the 2002 Hayman Fire occurred. That fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres and 133 homes, was in a ponderosa pine forest. “The fire cycle is a lot shorter,” Rebitzke said. “Some people say its about 10 to 20 years.”Nevertheless, Eagle County is far from immune from a wildfire. Even recent history, such as a small fire breaking out near Dotsero two weeks ago, is proof of that. The pine beetle epidemic, which has caused several pine trees in the Vail area to dry out, makes a wildfire more likely, Gulick said. Sage brush and oak brush, which cover the mountains on the north side of Interstate 70, have a much shorter fire cycle, Rebitzke said.Places like Eagle, Gypsum and Dotsero may be mores susceptible, too, because of the abundance of brush there.
“Around Vail and those areas, we’re not really worried about big fires,” said Ben Garrett, wildfire expert for the county. “Eagle, Gypsum, El Jebel and Basalt areas, there are some definite issues in those areas.””When Vail was getting snow last week,” Gypsum Fire Chief Dave Vroman said, ” we had light rain. Just the last couple of weeks, the ground’s drying up, our fuels are drying.”Agencies across the county are trying to work with residents to reduce the risk of a wildland fire that would threaten homes. Residents can pick up a CD from their local fire agency, or the county administration building in Eagle, that has tips on how to reduce the risk.”We’re trying to work with them, not against them,” said Eagle Fire Chief Jon Asper.That fact is, the county’s risk for fire can change in a matter of weeks, Vroman said. It all depends on weather systems.”It’s like my dad always said, ‘Only fools and newcomers try to predict the weather in the mountains,'” he said. Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.