Vail delays vote on new defensible space legislation
Council Members want changes before a vote
This story has been corrected. An April 6 meeting in Vail will discuss details of a fire mitigation plan on U.S. Forest Service property north of Vail.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak has spent much of his tenure in the job working to make the town less susceptible to wildfire. That effort has hit a speed bump.
The Vail Town Council Tuesday agreed to delay a vote on a proposed ordinance to enact what’s called the “Fire Free Five” program. That program would require every property in town to have at least 5 feet of non-combustible space on its exterior. If enacted, the ordinance would become required in 2025.
The idea behind creating those zones is to prevent, or at least reduce, the chances, of embers spreading into structures. Wind-driven embers can often lead a fire front by a mile or more.
Given the density in Vail — 62% of all structures are within 30 feet of another structure, fast spread is a real worry, especially with combustible material around those structures.
The delay came largely due to council members’ concerns about trees and costs.
The proposed ordinance would require property owners to remove trees within the 5-foot zone. Trees with branches encroaching into that zone can be trimmed from the bottom up to about 6 feet above ground. Old “heritage trees” in the town’s resort villages would be largely exempt from removal.
A ‘critical component’
Novak called Fire Free Five “the most critical component” of a property’s defensible space. And, he noted, even a relatively small wildfire could devastate the town in a number of ways from residents to the economy to the town’s environment.
Taking action now can help town residents know “what kind of wildfire we have,” Novak said, adding that Vail may not have 10 years to act.
But, he acknowledged, Fire Free Five requirements could create some tough decisions.
Those tough decisions revolve largely around trees, and particularly the cost of removing one. That’s what council members wanted to see further defined in a proposed ordinance.
Mayor Kim Langmaid asked if heritage tree exemptions could be extended into neighborhoods.
Town wildfire coordinator Paul Cada noted that could add more levels of town oversight to the program.
Council member Jen Mason said if a resident applies for an exemption, it’s more likely that resident will take greater care to make sure it’s properly trimmed and treated.
Council member Barry Davis said he’d like to see more public input on the proposed ordinance.
Davis said his emails indicate residents have many interpretations of the ordinance, adding he believed a Tuesday approval would be a “surprise” to many residents.
Support for the plan
Resident Penny Wilson said she supports the Fire Free Five idea.
“I’m not sure more public comment is going to change anything,” Wilson said. “I’d rather you take action now so the fire department can start doing what they need to do.”
Resident Stephen Connolly also voiced his support for the measure. Connolly noted “there’s a resistance to change” in the community, which means the council needs to “lead and govern” on the topic.
Resident John Rediker said while he’s generally in support of the measure, he worried it isn’t detailed enough.
Resident Susan Bird asked if Eagle County is also involved in wildfire prevention.
Novak noted the Eagle County Commissioners are also looking at “landscape level” projects to reduce wildfire risks. But, he added, towns have to act within their own boundaries.
Mason said “a lot of education” is needed for the Fire Free Five program to succeed. She added that the ordinance is needed, “but we need to tweak this.”
The Town Council will take up the issue again at its April 5 meeting. Changes are likely to include changes to the heritage tree program, as well as creation of a financial assistance mechanism to help with tree removal.
While Vail officials discuss how to protect the community from wildfire, the University of Colorado released a published report about wildfires. Findings include:
Wildfires have become larger, more frequent and more widespread since 2000 across the U.S.
Large fires are also spreading into new areas, affecting land that previously didn’t burn.
While fires across the U.S. increased between 2005 and 2018, fire frequency across the Great Plains quadrupled during that period.