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Fighting fire with paper regulations

Cliff Thompson
A slurry bomber drops a load of fire retardant on a wildfire along a ridge outside Bailey, Colo., Tuesday, April 23, 2002. The fire prompted the early dismissal of about 800 students and the evacuation of hundreds of homes. The air tankers were later grounded because it was too windy. (AP Photo/Rocky Mountain News, Barry Gutierrez)
AP | ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

It’s the practice of building residences in the woods.

In Eagle County, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of homes in the wild/urban interface that could be in harm’s way. They’re sold with glowing descriptions noting their location “amid mature stands of spruce” or that they are “backed right up to the forest.”

New building regulations for new construction, however, are aimed at reducing the risk of fire spreading.

Everything’s fine … until there’s a wildfire

This year, the driest since 1977, brings added focus to the situation. Last year at this time Colorado had had 50 fires. This year there already have been five times that many.

“On most days, it’s not a problem,” said Phil Bowden, interagency fire officer for the Upper Colorado River region of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. “It’s that 1 percent of the time that it can be pretty devastating.”

The worst example of what can happen when a wildfire takes off is what happened in Los Alamos, N.M., two summers ago. It caused upwards of a billion dollars in damage to dwellings built in the woods and elsewhere.

The Bailey fire comes as Eagle County’s draft of new building regulations addressing wildland fire safety begins to generate comments. The proposed regulations apply to new development and redevelopment.

Now it’s all a matter of money. It can be expensive to remove trees and brush, especially if you are unable to do it yourself. A tree service using lots of mechanized equipment can cost several thousand dollars a day, say experts.

A house in the woods

“Living in the woods in the Colorado mountains – it’s all the things people imagine,” said Eagle County Commissioner Mike Gallagher, a former fire chief for the town of Minturn. “What they don’t see is the fire danger.”

In Eagle County there are many areas built into the woods. Eby Creek north of Eagle, Bellyache Ridge above Wolcott, Cordillera, Eagle-Vail and others are areas of concern.

The new regulations aim to reduce the amount of fuel a fire will have around a dwelling. The idea is to protect the home from a wildfire and also to protect the forest from a dwelling fire.

It’s not a one-size fits all situation, said Gallagher. For most instances it will mean removing trees and brush close to the home to prevent a wildfire from moving in too close to a dwelling. For others, it may require different methods, such a removing “ladder fuels” that lead a fire from the forest floor up small trees into larger trees. It’s part fire science and part politics.

Example: Los Alamos

That political will generated locally from the Los Alamos fire, said Gallagher, who along with fellow-commissioner Tom Stone is pushing the new wildland fire safety regulations. Stone, in fact, is on the governor’s committee addressing wildland fire safety regulations.

Eagle District Ranger Cathy Kahlow, meanwhile, said the Bailey fire is a good wakeup call for people here.

“It’s a good time to look at defensible space around their house. If they don’t have it, it makes it that much harder,” she said.

What level of defense you need to create depends on what sort of wildfire fuels your house has surrounding it.

“It your house is at the top of a steep slope in the “PJ (pinon-juniper) zone,’ you’ve got serious trouble,” said fire officer Bowden. “If your house is on the downhill end next to a stream with 500 feet of green grass around it, you’re probably all right.”

Summit has regulations

Summit County is under a severe fire danger alert and has had defensible fire perimeter building regulations in place since 1993. The regulations, however, aren’t immediately embraced by residents or developers.

“People are resistant to change,” said Patti Maguire, wildfire officer for Summit County. “They don’t see it as a dangerous situation. We all have fire danger. It’s not a question of if it will burn, but when.”

The defensible fire perimeter building regulations have to be integrated into the county’s building regulations, said county planner Cliff Simonton.

“The wildfire regs are designed to reduce hazards to residential structures and also to reduce potential for a wildfire from a residential fire,” he said. “The initial part is to remove burnable materials within a certain space next to the house. After that, there’s a zone where vegetation is thinned out.”

Simonton said there will be additional costs for the owner of a heavily wooded lot who wants to build a home.

“In subdivisions, we would require fire-wise development to reduce fire across the development,” he said.

Under the proposed regulations, someone adding an addition to an existing home would be required to create a defensible fire perimeter.

But much of Eagle County is already developed and those already in place won’t be affected by adoption of the new WUI regulations.

Macguire said that in Summit County, a phased approach to working on the highest-risk areas has been adopted. Later the county will visit existing dwellings and work with homeowners on creating defensible perimeters.

“Retroactivity would be a huge undertaking,” she said. “A little bit of protection is not going to save your home. Its (fire danger) is either mitigated or it’s not. To get everybody on board, you can kind of do it in phases.”

The county will subject the proposed regulations to public scrutiny next month with adoption probable in June – which this year should be the height of fire season.

Vail Daily reporter Matt Zalaznick contributed to this story.


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