Eagle County isn’t immune from the trend of mega-fires | VailDaily.com

Eagle County isn’t immune from the trend of mega-fires

Beetle-killed timber, combined with very dry conditions and wind, is fueling the state's largest wildfires

Jessy Ellenberger took this photo from the deck of her home north of Granby, Colo., just before sunset on Wednesday. Residents in and around a gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park have evacuated and the park was closed after one of several fires burning in northern Colorado exploded late Wednesday, growing from 30 square miles to 196 square miles.
Jessy Ellenberger via AP
What about Grizzly Creek? The U.S. Forest Service reported Friday that the Grizzly Creek fire had grown by about 150 acres. Eagle Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis in an email reported that firefighters have a handle on those flare-ups. But she added, that activity is a good indicator that “fire season isn’t over until it’s over.”

If you’ve thought Colorado has had an exceptionally fiery fall, you’re right. This may be the beginning of years of extreme fire behavior.

When the East Troublesome Fire in Grand, Larimer and Jackson counties exploded into the state’s second-largest wildfire within less than 48 hours, Eagle County Wildfire Coordinator Eric Lovgren first thought the news was mistaken. The reality was shocking.

Lovgren has friends in Grand County. One has definitely lost her home to the blaze. Others may have.

And no, this isn’t normal — at least right now.

“The whole state is in either extreme or exceptional drought,” Lovgren said. “We’re beyond dry.”

That dry weather, combined with wind and fuel conditions, have created volatile conditions that led to hyper-fast growth of the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.

Paul Cada, the Vail Fire Department’s wildfire coordinator, talked by phone from Fort Collins, where he was helping on the Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County.

Cada worked for the Colorado State Forest Service before coming to Vail. He spent much of that early part of his career in Grand County. He has several friends who have lost their own homes while fighting the fire.

East Troublesome not unique

But the East Troublesome Fire isn’t unique, Cada said.

“What happened in Grand County could have happened in Vail, Aspen or Durango,” Cada said. “With forest conditions in the state, we should be expecting these events.”

Part of what’s driven the growth of the East Troublesome Fire is tens of thousands of acres of beetle-killed timber. Those trees died about 15 years ago, which means their dried, dead needles have spread across the forest floor. The sunlight those dead trees allow to the forest floor have also allowed the growth of grass and brush.

The smoke plume from the East Troublesome Fire was highly visible in Eagle County this week.
Special to the Daily

Take all that potential fuel and combine it with hot, dry weather, along with possible human carelessness and the conditions are ripe for what Lovgren called “extreme fire behavior” — large fires that grow quickly.

Before this year, the 2002 Hayman Fire northwest of Colorado Springs was the largest ever recorded in the state, burning just more than 138,000 acres.

But, Lovgren noted, that fire took weeks to cover that much territory.

This summer’s Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction also took weeks to burn 139,000 acres.

The Cameron Peak Fire in Larimer County has been burning for a couple of months, but grew rapidly in the past couple of weeks. That fire, which still isn’t contained, has so far burned more than 206,000 acres.

The East Troublesome Fire is a different beast altogether in the speed of its spread — and the number of communities it has affected.

Cada was hunting in the area when that fire started. A week later, it had turned huge, and dangerous.

“In my opinion, the moon, stars and wind aligned,” Cada said.

Eagle County is vulnerable

While Eagle County wasn’t hit nearly as hard by tree-killing insects, Cada said dead trees can still create a more dangerous fire.

“It’s certainly a major concern fighting fire all across Eagle County,” Cada said. “It’s something we hammer home will all our firefighters locally, as well as anyone who comes in (from out of the area).”

The focus in Vail and other alpine communities has to be on preparing communities, Cada said adding that governments, property owners and others have to be working now on ways to adapt to new, fire-prone conditions.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility,” Cada said.

And there are no quick fixes, Lovgren said.

“Things are out of whack,” he said, adding that insects, overgrown forests and a change from “vegetative” to “built” fuels — homes and other structures — has created new kinds of fire danger. And it could take years of normal moisture to return the forests to a less-volatile state.

Evacuees drive through a traffic jam exiting Big Thompson Canyon along U.S. Highway 34 as the East Troublesome Fire, now the second largest in Colorado history, forces residents out of Estes Park near Loveland on Thursday.
Bethany Baker | Fort Collins Coloradoan via AP)

The final piece, Lovgren said, is “an abundance of people in the woods.”

Many of those people don’t understand the need to be careful with fire.

In an email, Eagle Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis wrote that crews on this part of the forest are finding unattended fires on a regular basis. And, since all the local established campgrounds are currently closed, there shouldn’t be any fires anywhere.

No excuses

“At this point, it’s well past anybody having the excuse they didn’t know,” Cada said. “I’ve yet to see a year where we’ve (put warning signs) any heavier.” Unattended fires, he said, are “people who are having a blatant disregard for other people.”

Going forward, people are going to have to be smarter about their own communities and how they behave in the woods, Lovgren said.

Perhaps the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires may lead to some greater awareness.

“More and more people are touched by this,” Lovgren said. “Once you have a personal stake, it all starts to make sense.”

The possible silver lining, Lovgren added, is that these fires may bring more awareness and, hopefully some “big action” regarding creating fire-resilient landscapes and fire-adaptive communities.”

Cada, though, believes we’re in an age of extreme fires, with diseased trees playing an ever-larger role.

“I know deep in my heart that the pine beetle epidemic will be driving my entire career,” he said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.

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