Vail fire chief: Marshall fire could happen here |

Vail fire chief: Marshall fire could happen here

How dry conditions and roaring winds created a perfect fire storm

John Peer finds a couple of plates as he looks through the rubble of his fire-damaged home Friday after the Marshall Wildfire in Louisville.
Jack Dempsey/AP

The Marshall Fire, the Dec. 30 blaze that destroyed nearly 1,000 structures in Boulder County at last count, is a firefighter’s worst fears come to life.

“One of the things that really strikes me … is that the buildings in Vail, especially in the main parts, are closer than they are in Superior,” Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said Monday

The fires, driven by winds in excess of 100 mph, drove embers that contributed to the fire’s devastation.

Eagle River Fire Protection District Chief Karl Bauer said while many people believe a fire’s destructive power lies in the actual front of flames as they approach structures, it’s the wind-driven “ember storm” ahead of that front that can accelerate the pace of the fire.

And, Bauer added, “It doesn’t take a 100-mph wind to create that kind of fire storm.”

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Vail sent a brush truck and crew to Boulder County the day of the fire. Paul Cada, the department’s wildland fire specialist, also went to Boulder County to serve as a task force leader.

The Vail crews came back after a hard night of work on the fire and just ahead of the snow that fell on the Front Range beginning New Year’s Eve.

Residents fight the Marshall Fire in Louisville Thursday, Dec. 30, as fire crews worked through the night battling the blaze that had destroyed as many as 1,000 homes in Boulder County.
Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP

Bauer’s department kept everyone close to home, in case neighboring departments needed help. Bauer noted that some Summit County departments are critically short-staffed due to COVID-19.

But, he added, “one of the first things that occurs to firefighters … if it’s not in our own area, we want to help.”

That mindset is a lot more focused, and focused quickly on helping save lives and property, if a fire is close to home.

And, while the weather is very different on the Front Range, Novak said there have been changes common on both sides of the Continental Divide.

High winds in the winter months are nothing new in the area between roughly Golden and Boulder. What’s different is the extreme drought conditions that led to fast-burning grasslands.

Similarly, fires are more common at higher elevations than they once were.

Novak noted studies show the biggest increase in wildfire incidence is at elevations of 8,000 feet or higher.

The notion that Vail is somehow exempt because of its alpine location has been “proven wrong over and over again,” Novak said.

Other studies for Vail have shown that the department could use additional staffing.

Novak this week will ask the Vail Town Council to consider applying for a federal SAFER grant to bolster the department’s manpower.

There’s roughly $560 million in that program for 2022. If Vail applies, the town will ask for six new firefighters — who would also be certified emergency medical technicians. The federal grant would pay for those people for three years.

Novak said he and the Vail Town Council in early 2020 talked about applying for a grant. That was a matter of weeks before the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the grant comes through, the new people would add two firefighters per shift to Vail’s department.

If the unthinkable happens in Eagle County, every firefighter will be needed.

And, while hard to imagine, Bauer said that kind of firestorm could “very easily” happen here.

By the numbers

991: Current estimate of structures destroyed in the Marshall Fire in Superior, Louisville and Boulder County.

127: Current estimate of structures damaged in that fire.

21: Eagle River Fire Protection District firefighters on duty every shift.

1: Vail brush truck and crew sent to the Marshall Fire. Wildland fire coordinator Paul Cada also went to the scene.

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