Vail’s fire mitigation plan includes wilderness area
A significant part of property in the town’s Booth Creek mitigation plan lies within the Eagles Nest Wilderness
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak has three top public safety priorities on his checklist: human life, property and the environment. That makes for some complex, and delicate, talks with federal officials.
During a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, Novak and Paul Cada, the town’s wildland fire program administrator, ran through a host of accomplishments and to-do lists.
One of the presentation’s bullet points may be the most complicated: “Aggressively advocate for actions that prioritize community safety above resource objectives in the Booth Creek Environmental Analysis.”
The complexity comes because a significant part of the area being analyzed is in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. Other parts are proposed for wilderness designation in the federal CORE Act.
That federal land is a key part of a 4,400-acre, “landscape level” area targeted for wildfire mitigation and habitat improvement work by the town, the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
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That work has begun, with prescribed burns in April of this year. Brush thinning has also been done in the area.
But doing the entire project will require an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service about operating in the wilderness area. That process is time-consuming and still limits what can be done.
A ‘least impactful’ approach
Novak noted that federal regulations in wilderness area require work to be done in the least impactful ways possible. For instance, trimming can be done only with hand tools. No chainsaws are allowed.
And, while prescribed burning can be allowed, crews can use only natural firebreaks. Digging new breaks isn’t allowed in the wilderness.
Natural fire control can include burning only in the spring, using snow as a control. Novak noted that can result in less-effective burning, since fuel on the ground is likely to still be wet.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson said all those factors and more are being discussed with Forest Service officials during an environmental analysis of the area.
Those analyses are all subject to public comment. In the case of any proposal involving wilderness, state and national advocacy groups keep a close eye on proposals.
Robson said he hopes that the environmental analysis process can demonstrate to Forest Service officials, the public and advocacy groups that the current proposals take a pragmatic approach to both habitat restoration and wildfire mitigation.
Robson noted that the area proposed for work hasn’t seen either significant natural fire or human-run mitigation work in “decades.”
Novak said the lack of natural fire is in many cases a function of a natural environment that no longer exists.
Conditions have changed
Novak noted that one argument holds that a home built near a wilderness area isn’t “the wilderness’s fault.” But he added, “The reality is that in 1960, we weren’t having a lot of fires at 8,000 feet elevation.”
That’s changed over the years, he added, with studies showing a “very significant increase” in large fires at elevations of 8,200 feet and above.
Communities built during the old conditions need to be “more aggressive” in fire mitigation efforts, Novak said.
Vail already puts a lot of effort into mitigation around town. A wildland crew of between six and seven people spends time every summer working on projects at the edges of the town’s municipal boundaries. But a small crew with hand tools won’t be able to make much progress in the East Vail area.
Robson said he hopes whatever comes of the current process takes a realistic approach to mitigation efforts. Vail will probably shoulder the lion’s share of the cost of the project. If federal officials limit the scope of work in the wilderness, “I think we’d have to question whether this makes financial sense, and whether it makes ecological sense.”
Novak said there’s a strong ecological argument for conducting work in the wilderness. That area of East Vail is above Gore Creek. A major fire in that area could present a real threat of mudslides and debris flows going into the stream.
“There’s no greater threat to Gore Creek than a (major) wildfire,” Novak said. “We see the work we do in fire mitigation and forest management are very much aligned with environmental objectives.”