Eagle County prepares for the ultimate fight
The summer is here, bringing with it raging rivers, sunshine, summer recreation and something a little less cheerful ” the threat of wildfires.
Town and county officials know all too well about the threat ” all they have to do is look up to see the rust-colored trees interspersed throughout the forest. After several seasons of pine beetle attacks, much of the forest above Vail is looking ruddy with dead, dry trees that are ready to burn.
A massive wildfire could spread rapidly through the forests surrounding our narrow valley, which fills with more development and more people every year. That means there’s more lying within a wildfire’s path now than ever.
Firefighters throughout the county are as ready as they can be for a wildfire, says Fire Chief Charles Moore of the Eagle River Fire Protection District. Last week, the district hosted basic wildland fire training for its 2008 recruiting class. The four-day class is taught to federal, state and local responders around the country, allowing them to work as a team when they’re deployed to fight wildfires together. The training enables not only firefighters to work together when called, but also other agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and law enforcement.
“No matter who is in charge of the fire, everyone understands their role and responsibilities,” says Brian Lloyd, district ranger for the Eagle/Holy Cross district of the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s a really important tool.”
Deployments happen often ” several Eagle River Fire Protection District firefighters went to fight the fires near San Diego last year, and many firefighters from Vail and other local jurisdictions have also traveled elsewhere to fight wildfires.
“(Deployment) is the best thing for training,” says Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller. “To get them deployed when we’re not at a high danger here gets them great experience.”
Training is extensive regardless of whether firefighters end up traveling to wildfires in other parts of the country. The four-day class, also known as red card certification, tests the limits of these firefighters’ physical abilities. From carrying a 45-pound pack for three miles ” in less than 45 minutes ” to carving lines in the forest that divide burning sections from non-burning sections, the firefighters have their work cut out for them. And training is a cakewalk compared to the real thing, not only because of obvious reasons like an out-of-control wildfire, but also because deployment means they’ll be working 16-hour days for at least two weeks straight.
“(Fighting a wildfire) takes a lot of folks and it’s very labor intensive,” says Karl Bauer, deputy chief of training and administration for the Eagle River Fire Protection District. “It’s not uncommon to have as many as 1,000 (firefighters) on a wildland fire. It’s like managing an army.”
The county’s last major wildfire was almost a year ago in the Singletree area of Edwards. Gusty winds turned a small fire ” believed to be started by illegal fireworks ” into five acres in just minutes, says Eagle River Fire Protection District Chief Moore. Through cooperation between his agency and the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Vail and Eagle Fire Departments and the Eagle River District, crews were able to put the fire out pretty quickly, he said. That cooperation is key, but during busy fire years ” which Lloyd says are just about every year these days ” those fire agencies are just as likely to be competing for the same help.
The county and its partners in fighting wildfires have identified where to put those limited resources to best use by identifying the high-value areas that are most important to protect ” meaning areas with the most at stake, such as buildings and people.
Prevention is another key part of the plan.
The town of Vail, which has plenty to protect, implemented its own wildfire ordinance that calls for inspections of trees on private properties and gives residents options for getting rid of them, says Vail Fire Chief Miller.
Cordillera, an upscale community near Edwards, has been one of the leaders in wildfire prevention in the county. Residents there work together with the community’s public safety director and other officials to minimize the fire risk around their homes and throughout the community. Last year the community cut 12,000 dead trees in a massive ” and very expensive ” effort to remove fuel for fire. Cordillera is one of eight communities in the state with the “Firewise Community” designation ” meaning it has a network of homeowners and agencies like the Forest Service that work together to keep the area as protected from wildfires as possible.
Eagle County also passed a wildfire ordinance in 2003 that requires new buildings to meet wildfire standards, including using fire-resistant building materials. The regulations are looked at annually and adjusted as needed.
Despite their training, don’t count on firefighters to save your house in a wildfire ” firefighters are more in the business of saving lives, not property, says Brad Jones, of the Eagle Fire Department.
People who choose to have trees surrounding their homes simply for beauty aren’t creating what the fire departments call “defensible space” ” areas within 30 feet around homes where the fire risk should be reduced as much as possible.
“We’ll get people (and) pets out, but we’re not going to risk our life for a house,” Jones says.
That’s why it’s important for people to defend their homes before a fire ever starts. An obvious way to do this is to thin the trees closest to the home, but it doesn’t mean you have to replace all vegetation with cement. You do, however, need to ensure the vegetation around your home is spaced out properly and includes the most fire-resistant plants, such as aspen, succulents, wildflowers and some herbaceous species. Doing everything possible to protect your home not only increases the chance it will survive a wildfire, but it also increases the chance you will survive ” homes with defensible space are more accessible to firefighters for rescues, and the firefighters also have more time to get to them.
People need to have their own plans in place, Moore says. Wildfires are the natural disasters that the residents of Eagle County have to be ready for, just as Floridians prepare for hurricanes and Midwesterners for tornadoes.
“You’ve got to have an individual plan,” Moore says. “We’re going to be busy fighting the fire. People need to be smart.”
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