Exercise prepares responders for big wildfire | VailDaily.com

Exercise prepares responders for big wildfire

Stephen Kasica
Vail, CO Colorado
NWS Wildfire Exercise DT 5-22-12

VAIL, Colorado – On Tuesday, Eagle River Fire Protection District firefighters were knocking on homeowners’ doors and handing out faux-evacuation fliers as part of an emergency simulation conducted across multiple emergency agencies in Eagle County.

They were participating in an exercise being conducted at the Donovan Pavilion to prepare for a potential major wildfire in eastern Eagle County. Firefighters, police officers and officials from the town of Vail, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross meet quarterly to prepare for disaster situations, but the topic Tuesday was wildfire because of the heightened risk this summer. For more than four hours, these agencies discussed options and strategies.

“Why am I staying awake at night?” asked Forest Service Fire Management Officer Ross Wilmore rhetorically to the group. “The kind of forest we have here only burns once every century. I think we have reached that point now where the woods are ready to burn.”

The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for Eagle County during the simulation, lasting until 9 p.m. Tuesday, which means that weather conditions are prime for the spread of wildfires.

“Today is about realizing how fast a wildfire moves and how fast it literally gets out of hand and how you get some kind of control over it,” said Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller.

The scenario is built upon a plausible wildfire incident that could occur in Eagle County. In this hypothetical scenario, it is late August and a fire breaks out after a pattern of unseasonably dry weather. Winds gust up to 45 mph to spread the blaze.

This scenario was not caused by a lightning strike but by human error. The simulated fire would begin in the early afternoon when white smoke was spotted out of a garage where no one is home.

The mock wildfire then would move into the forest above the house, and to the east in the grasses at the base of the slope. Even though the hills look green, the risk of a wildfire remains. The Vail Valley forest is an old forest ridden with dead fallen trees from the pine beetle infestation. Because this dry season follows an extremely wet season, overgrown grasses, which burn quickly, have dried.

Within two hours, embers would be carried away from the initial site, burning at 12 feet per minute, towards condominiums along the Lionsridge Loop and homes along Sandstone Drive. Generally, the areas with the lowest fire danger are the areas closest to the Eagle River and become more susceptible to fire farther away from the bank. This mock wildfire threatened the Potato Patch area.

The challenge in these situations is how to notify citizens out in the valley. Three and a half hours after the fire ignited, citizens attending an art show and the farmers market began complaining of irritated throats and stinging eyes. Guests at wedding ceremony being conducted at the top of Lionshead Gondola Eagles Nest were asking if they need to evacuate. Among the logistical concerns in an emergency situation is public complacency in these situations – that residents will think officials are being overly cautious.

“Until you’ve experienced a fire, it’s pretty easy to be complacent,” Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said. “I’ve told people 100 times to make a list of what to grab and where to go, because if you think you’ll be prepared-you’re not.”

Zemler possesses a unique insight into his hypothetical situation because for him it is not hypothetical. He lost a home in Fourmile Fire that befell Boulder in 2010. He visits the home three weekends a month and was in Vail when he received a Reverse 911 message about the fire.

Stephen Kasica is an intern for the Vail Daily. Reach him at 970-777-3196 or skasica@vaildaily.com