Fighting Vail’s future fires |

Fighting Vail’s future fires

Matt TerrellVail, CO Colorado
Above are the parts of the forest from which crews will remove dead trees and complete other projects meant to reduce the risk of wildfires.

VAIL – Mother Nature can be quite the arsonist.Maybe next summer, maybe in 50 years, she’ll get the urge to burn down much of the White River National Forest and clear out hundreds of miles of beetle-killed pine trees. She historically likes a clean slate, and a big burn is inevitable, said Phil Bowden, a wildland fuels management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.Vail just has to be ready when that happens.This summer, the town and the forest service will continue clearing out dead and dying pine trees surrounding Vail, much like they’ve done the past three years. The trees shed their needles and branches then fall to the forest floor, contributing to a large and volatile fuel load. The pines, filled with sticky, combustible pitch, make great fuel for wildfires and are dangerous to residents and buildings, especially those on the edge.”Pine pitch is a dangerous fuel, and you definitely want to get rid of those dead and diseased lodgepole pines around town,” said Bill Carlson, environmental health officer for Vail.The work, part of the Vail Forest Health Project, will also focus on regenerating aspen trees, which are natural fire breaks, Carlson said. Regenerating aspens means cutting down old and dying trees and letting new chutes pop up. If you cut them before they actually die, they’ll start growing again.”If you cut down an aspen, it’s roots say, ‘Woops, we don’t have a tree anymore,’ and they grow more, they start sprouting at the base,” Carlson said. “This gives us a diversified forest. The aspen is a fire-resistant tree.”

Up to 90 percent of White River National Forest could become infested with pine beetles and die, according to the forest service.

“It’s built up for over 100 years, it’s come to a crescendo and it’s time for it to change,” Carlson said.With the inevitability of a fire in mind, the main goal of the Vail Forest Health Project is to create a boundary around the town that will serve as a fuel break and allow fire fighters easy access to the forest if a wildfire were to occur.”In addition to lessening the visual impacts of the pine beetle infestation, we’re making impacts at the town’s boundary that will be important in the event a wildfire occurs,” said Tom Talbot, Vail fire technician.This project will focus on 10 acres of town land and 170 acres of national forest surrounding Vail. The work will take place between Pitkin Creek and Bighorn Creek on the north side of Interstate 70; in the Intermountain area above Stephens Park; along the north side of I-70 between the Son of Middle Creek Trail and North Trail; and along the North Trail that begins in the Red Sandstone neighborhood. Trails will be closed.A controlled burn will also be set in the Booth Creek area and above Vail Mountain School in late April. Pile burning is also scheduled in the fall to complete work from last summer’s project above Westhaven Drive and Greenhill Court.It’s not clear yet whether trees will be removed by helicopter like they were last year, Carlson said. If it’s not worked out, trees will be piled and burned, he said.

How bad a fire is could depend on when it happens. The pine beetle epidemic is drastically changing the forest, and a fire now would be much different than it would be in 15 and 50 years.Say one were to break out this summer. Bowden said at that point, most trees are still standing and not that much dead wood has fallen on the ground, at least compared to how much there will be. A fire then would probably be limited to the forest floor and be less intense, unless very strong winds carried flames to the tree tops.”If it were to get to the crowns, that could be a very intense fire, but that’s less likely to happen,” Bowden said.In 15 years, it’s likely that much of the forest will be dead and on the ground. A fire at this point wouldn’t be as bad as it would be in 50 years, though.Bowden said in 50 years, there would still be a lot dead wood on the forest floor, and there would be a lot of young trees closer to the ground. That combination makes for a monster fire, he said.

Vail residents can help reduce the risk of forest fires by taking a look at trees in their own back yards.Many homes in Vail are surrounded by beetle-infested trees, and by removing those trees and spraying healthy ones, homeowners help prevent the spread of beetles to other trees, Vail fire technician Tom Talbot said. This also creates a safe space around their homes.The Vail Fire Department offers Vail homeowners and residents free pine beetle and wildfire risk assessments. After an assessment is made, the fire department will work with homeowners to find solutions.According to Town of Vail Code, it is a public nuisance to leave infested pines on private property, and owners are responsible for removing those trees. Also, homeowners wanting to cut trees must receive town approval.Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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