Eagle County, Vail officials get a taste of disaster and the response it requires
If a disaster does strike Vail, officials will be ready. Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said they regularly review available assets, both in town and in the region. In addition, the department has management objectives for both infrastructure and recreational assets. And, he added, everyone trains for disasters frequently.
EAGLE — It’s July 3, and the valley has gone weeks without rain.
Something — lightning or a stray spark from a human — ignites a fire just above Vail’s Potato Patch neighborhood. Dry conditions and a stiff wind quickly turn a small fire into a neighborhood-threatening conflagration.
What do you do?
That was the scenario painted in a recent disaster exercise held in Eagle County’s Emergency Operations Center, a large, computer- and phone-filled room in the basement of the Eagle County Administration Building.
There, the Vail Town Council, Eagle County Board of Commissioners and various emergency officials used an interactive tabletop model to talk about officials’ various roles if a disaster strikes.
In the computer projection, the simulated fire grew drastically in a matter of minutes. Wind quickly overwhelmed the Vail Fire Department’s ability to respond.
In the first minutes of the fire, Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said his department can bring four fire trucks on scene. Mutual aid with neighboring departments can have another five trucks on the scene within an hour.
After that, help is farther away, he said.
Given those scarce resources, Novak said his department’s first priority will be neighborhood evacuations.
“Our primary objective is life safety,” he said.
Calling in support
After mutual aid among agencies within Eagle and Summit counties is exhausted is when partnerships come into play, from the region and state and federal agencies.
The way emergency response works in this country is also important to understand.
Birch Barron, Eagle County emergency manager, said emergency management in the U.S. is very much a bottom-up process. In Vail — and in Eagle County — an official emergency declaration is essential to get the machinery of financial and other help moving. With that in mind, there’s no reason not to make an early emergency declaration.
Emergency declarations aren’t common though. Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said he can’t recall the town ever making an emergency declaration, and he’s been on the job since 2002. County officials, of course, quickly declared an emergency in the 2018 Lake Christine Fire in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Local agencies are also the leaders in responding to emergencies. Barron said that’s the case unless local agencies specifically cede control to federal or state agencies.
The need for financial help becomes apparent when you start adding up the costs of a full-blown emergency. The Lake Christine Fire’s final tab came in at more than $20 million.
The 2018 Buffalo fire near the Wildernest neighborhood in Summit County was far less destructive. But calling in air support ran the response bill to more than $900,000 in the first six hours.
The public face of a response
But a big fire in Vail will quickly create other problems.
In the simulation, the fire quickly knocks out electric power to the town. With the Fourth of July looming, there are already thousands of visitors in town, with more on the way.
Should events be canceled? Should officials impose a curfew?
In the aftermath, “how do we save the rest of our summer tourism season?” Novak asked.
There will also be questions about the day-to-day operations of local government.
During an emergency, Barron reminded council members they’ll be the public face of the response.
“People are going to be upset — it’s really, really personal for them,” Barron said. “You need to recognize how important it is … to set the tone of the emergency, with the public and with responders.”
Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry noted that during the Lake Christine Fire, one of the three county commissioners was on hand for every daily press briefing.
“Practice is good, but it’s nothing like the real thing — just being on scene,” Chandler-Henry said. “I wish I’d known how traumatic it was.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2930.
In terms of area, it’s the county’s smallest conservation deal ever. In terms of location, it’s one of the county’s rarest acquisitions.