Vail delays voting on ‘Fire Free Five’ regulations |

Vail delays voting on ‘Fire Free Five’ regulations

Town will fire-harden its own structures first

Five feet of noncombustible space helped save this Grand County home during the 2020 East Troublesome Fire.
Daily archive photo

The town of Vail will do fire-hardening on its own property before requiring property owners to do the same.

Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak and town wildfire coordinator Paul Cada on Tuesday again presented town officials with an ordinance that would require all structures in town to be surrounded with a 5-foot buffer zone of noncombustible material. That regulation wouldn’t take effect until 2025. Council members Tuesday decided to delay a vote on the ordinance, preferring to first conduct fire-hardening work on town structures.

The proposed program, called “Fire Free Five,” has drawn opposition in large part due to a requirement to either remove trees in that 5-foot zone, or trim trees with branches that extend into the 5-foot zone.

The point of the proposal is to reduce the spread of embers during a wildfire. Novak noted that wind-driven embers can spread a mile or more ahead of a fire. It’s those embers that can spark fires near structures. Since most structures in Vail are separated by 30 feet or less of space, the chance increases for structure-to-structure spread.

While Vail and other fire officials have for years been working to spread the word about making property more fire-resistant, Cada noted that 79% of Vail properties evaluated don’t meet the Fire Free Five recommendations.

Enough funding assistance?

While the council Tuesday passed a resolution approving $150,000 in funding assistance for fire mitigation work, residents said that assistance won’t come close to covering their costs, particularly when it comes to tree removal.

Resident Dick Cleveland told council members he’d planted trees about 20 years ago outside his West Vail home. Those trees shade his home in the summer so he hasn’t needed to install air conditioning, Cleveland said, adding that tree planting has long been a condition of approval for home construction. Cleveland said he’s worried that many of those trees will have to go, at a cost of many thousands of dollars.

“You need to understand this is going to majorly impact this community,” Cleveland said. “This seems to me to be going way too far.”

Resident John Rediker said the proposed ordinance still needs changes. Rediker said the $150,000 in assistance passed earlier in the evening is “severely” inadequate. Rediker said he believes as many as 100 trees would have to be removed in just his neighborhood. Town wide, that could mean thousands of trees removed at a cost of millions of dollars.

Rediker also encouraged council members to exempt deciduous trees including aspen from the removal requirement.

Rediker called the proposed ordinance a “one size fits all” approach to a problem with many possible solutions.

Aspens will burn

Novak noted that while deciduous trees are less fire-prone, the changing nature of wildfire means aspen stands can also be vulnerable to fire.

“We’re seeing across the West fire rip through aspens,” Novak said.

Resident Susan Bird said the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission needs to be more involved in drafting the proposed regulation.

Council member Travis Coggin suggested taking this year to work on town property and continue education with registration. Taking this year, the ordinance could still take effect by 2025, Coggin said.

Council member Jen Mason said the town should take before and after pictures of town structures, adding she doesn’t think the Fire Free Five project will have the negative impact many residents fear it might.

Council member Kevin Foley also recommended that the town carefully track the costs of fire-hardening town structures.

While the town delayed passing the current ordinance, Novak said the work is essential.

Asked about how much time the town might have to improve its fire defenses, Novak said, “I can’t tell you if it’s three months, three years or 13 years.” But, he added, a major fire near Vail is “not a matter of if, but when.”

What’s 5 feet?

5: Old-school wooden rulers.

2: Old-school wooden yardsticks, with one cut back by a foot.

4: Copies of the Vail Daily laid lengthwise end to end.

1: Vail Town Council member Jen Mason.

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