Eagle County ripe for major blaze | VailDaily.com
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Eagle County ripe for major blaze

Tom Boyd

The news of the June 11 fire at Palphyry Mountain was only a few hours old when incident commander Dan Arnold, a smokejumper out of Boise, Idaho, parachuted out of a plane and landed, with seven other wildfire fighters, in a meadow less than a mile from the blaze.At approximately 2:50 p.m., reports from the spotter plane indicated that the Palphyry fire was very intense, burning in thick spruce and heavy deadfall, and Arnold was unsure if slurry bomb attacks were containing the fire. Located about nine miles southwest of Beaver Creek resort, and clearly visible from most of Eagle, the fire threatened to become massive.A bolt of lightning struck Palphyry mountain more than a week before the fire, then fuel slowly smoldered until conditions were ripe for the fire to grow. Arnold, who has been a smokejumper for more than five years, says Eagle County can expect many lightning fires as the summer continues.”Just about every time you get a lightning strike, you’re going to get a fire down here,” Arnold said shortly before building a fire line around Palphyry mountain. “Then maybe they’ll start up or burn themselves out. Normally, they’ll just burn themselves out, but you’ve had three or four years of drought down here and the moisture level in the fuel is very low, so you’re going to see a lot of fires.”By four o’clock, reports were coming in that slurry bombers, which had been diverted from other regional fires, were beginning to contain the blaze. But as Colorado heads into a fourth, and driest, year of drought, the threat of more fires looms heavily over Eagle County.In the meantime, county officials are preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best.Fight fire with snowmakingThe wide-open terrain in Vail’s Back Bowls was likely created by a forest fire many years ago. Now, decadent lodgepole tree stands make the front side of Vail Mountain among the many fire-prone zones in the county.Vail Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen says a major fire on Vail Mountain would be disastrous, because “I think the guest has some expectation that part of the skiing experience is dancing through the trees “A fire on the slopes would be a bigger concern for our infrastructure (chairlifts, buildings, etc.),” Jensen adds, “Every year (fire is) on our radar screen, but this year it’s a bigger concern because of the drought conditions.”Vail has held an on-mountain wildfire training class for its staff, and they’ve cached firefighting equipment on the mountain in various areas. Vail also has the ability to fire up the snowmaking system to help fight any blaze that might flare on the ski slopes.More firemenA quick response and a bit of good will from Mother Nature minimized the size of the Palphyry Mountain fire and another fire that burned near the Eagle County Landfill north of Wolcott June 8.”The (Palphyry Mountain fire) was brought under control because, with the Glenwood and the Hayman fire, they were able to get a slurry (bomber) here in about 45 minutes,” says Eagle River Fire Protection District chief Charlie Moore. “That was a significant factor in getting the thing contained in a rapid amount of time.”But county officials are continuing to look for ways to minimize response time and maximize firefighting efficiency.As part of that effort, the fire district’s board recently allocated $25,000 to ensure that the county has two more firemen on duty at all times for the next three months.On June 11, Moore met with local water officials. The meeting allowed local firefighters to gauge how and where water storage supplies might be used to fight structure fires in Eagle County. Fire hoses and lawn hoses pull water from the same place, so water officials are encouraging county residents to follow voluntary watering restrictions in order to ensure that the local water tanks don’t run dry during a structure fire.Where there’s smokers, there’s fireSmoking outdoors has been banned at all four Vail Resorts ski areas: Beaver Creek, Vail, Keystone and Breckenridge. Signage will inform visitors that an open fire ban is being enforced at those resorts as well. In addition, the governor is aggressively enforcing a statewide ban on open fires on public lands. Still, the state and federal governments are considering closing more public lands if careless (and law-breaking) campers continue to spark blazes.Even though Moore points out that smoking can be as dangerous as fireworks during the summer, there is no county or statewide ban on outdoor smoking. But all fireworks, including the rather benign sparklers, are banned for public use. Commercial fireworks displays are still OK, although Vail and the organizers of a Fourth of July display at the Eagle County Fairgrounds have cancelled their shows. Avon, which boasts the state’s largest display and shoots off its red-glaring rockets over Nottingham Lake, is still considering holding its show. A final decision will be made next week.”We’re going to step up the effort to educate citizens about how to reduce fire danger,” Moore says. “What I need to stress is that if people observe other citizens shooting fireworks off, even a sparkler, they need to report this to law enforcement. Even a sparkler has the potential to take out a subdivision.”Your homeBuilders, developers, design review boards, and home buyers have come together to help create many subdivisions that are particularly prone to catching fire.”The issue of protecting your home from a wildfire is 90 percent planning and 10 percent response,” Moore says. “We still have a lot of homes with wood shakes, and that’s a nutty thing to do.”Moore also points out that homes with wooden decks are prone to catch embers from a nearby fire, and that homes should have a defensible space on all sides that allows fire truck access. Unfortunately, he says, many homes do not meet these requirements.


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