How agencies are preparing for inevitable wildfires in Eagle County
Eagle Valley Wildland co-op is building wildfire resilient communities through fuels reduction projects
In recent years, the threat of wildfires in Eagle County is no longer a question of “if it happens” to “when it happens.”
“We have to face reality. Fire is changing in the Western United States and it’s a far greater and destructive force than we have ever seen before,” said Karl Bauer, the fire chief of the Eagle River Fire Protection District, at the May 25 Avon Town Council meeting.
In order to get ahead of this threat, several local agencies — Eagle River Fire Protection District, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, Eagle County and Gypsum Fire — formed the Eagle Valley Wildland program to get ahead of wildfire danger by mitigating the risk and hopefully reduce the ultimate impact of such natural disasters.
One of the primary ways that the Eagle Valley Wildland has been attempting to reach this goal is through fuels reduction programs across the valley. While these programs include various methods, Bauer said that local agencies were “becoming very aggressive in working with communities to reduce fuels in certain areas in communities that are prone to wildfires.”
Hugh Fairfield-Smith, the wildland coordinator for Eagle Valley Wildland, said in an interview with the Vail Daily that the fuels reduction programs include three main types of projects. This includes prescribed fires (including broadcast burning on large landscapes as well as of slash piles), forest thinning (opening up the spacing of trees, slimming certain fuels and clearing dead, downed trees) and tactical fuel breaks (including mowing and masticating vegetation down).
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“These projects are really important as it’s basic forest management and habitat management. A healthy forest is much less likely to burn at a higher intensity,” Fairfield-Smith said. “Wildfire is something we’re always going to have and we just need to learn to deal with it to create resilient communities and resilient landscapes; so that when fire hits them, the severity of the burn intensity is drastically reduced.”
Areas are identified for these projects based on several key factors and a “robust decision-making model,” he added.
“Some of our key maps that we look at are likelihood of wildfire, relation to the wildland-urban interface, burn probability, burn severity — once we look at all those things, then we can look at available land to treat as some land we just don’t have the ability to work on,” Fairfield-Smith said.
While these projects are not intended to entirely eliminate wildfires — a nearly impossible feat at this point — they are intended to reduce the severity of such events and make it easier for firefighters to fight burns when they occur.
Fuel reduction programs help give firefighters good access points, places to engage with wildfire and give them a tactical advantage to protect homes and property, Fairfield-Smith said.
“All of our fuels projects give a tactical advantage to our firefighters so that they have a place to engage safely to protect homes, critical infrastructure, waterways and help steer fire around communities,” Fairfield-Smith said.
Already, these programs have occurred across Eagle County in partnership with local municipalities and agencies. This has included areas from Minturn, Avon, Wildridge, Bachelor’s Gulch, Eby Creek, Eagle and more.
Federal agencies have long conducted these types of fuels reduction programs. However, Fairfield-Smith said there was a “huge void” when it came to county- and municipality-owned land as well as some private land. Which is why Eagle Valley Wildland felt it was important to really target fuels projects with a “community approach,” he added.
“To really curb this threat of wildfire, we really need to look at a community approach at every level of government down to the private citizen is all doing their part,” Fairfield-Smith said. “The fuels reduction programs can happen all day long on the federal land, but then if we choose to not do anything on a micro scale — comparative to the federal treatments — it will be all for nothing.”
Engaging the community approach also includes — outside of these fuels reduction projects — efforts to help citizens create tailored wildfire plans for properties and evacuations. To learn more and request a free home assessment, visit RealFire.net.
Moving forward, as wildfire danger increases each year, these programs as well as coming together as a community to mitigate risks will become more critical.
“We have a lot more work to do to make this more robust and (become) more effective at reducing fuels and the chance for large, more destructive fires,” Bauer said.