Environmental scientist Steve Yarbrough has spent the past months assessing most of Eagle County’s vegetation and land to create a fire hazard map.
Among other things, Yarbrough looks at trees, what’s on the ground and the slope of the terrain to determine how fast a fire could spread.
“So far, I have found in the county the full spectrum of fire hazard ratings: from low to extreme,” says Yarbrough, of the Dynamac Corporation of Denver. He was hired by Eagle County to draw a detailed map of what areas are more prone to a wildfire.
The map will help with the new wildfire protection measures county commissioners passed last year to prevent the spread of fires. “The map will set construction standards and vegetation management according to where the building is,” Yarbrough said.
The regulations, in place since April, require all new construction in unincorporated Eagle County to follow wildfire-mitigation measures designed to reduce the risk of fire. This includes working with vegetation in a lot, using non-combustible construction materials and locating building sites to avoid high or extreme hazard areas.
“The first step is to identify the hazard areas. The map is the groundwork upon which we based action for fire hazard and mitigation,” said Eagle County Commissioner Michael Gallagher. “By doing it countywide we will be able to share that information and encourage municipalities to adopt similar regulations, because fire doesn’t respect any political lines.”
The map, which at the beginning was going to be just for unincorporated areas in the county, ended up including Basalt, Eagle, Gypsum, Avon, Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. It will be ready Oct. 15.
“Wildfire is a key element of nature,” Yarbrough says. “The best you can hope is that people will build as intelligent as they can so in the event a fire comes, it would be easier to protect individual homes and communities. These regulations will also make it easier for the firefighters.”
Money to work on the map came from the county, a national fire-plan grant and a grant from the Colorado State Forest Service.
Protecting the county
It’s a raw fall morning in the valley and Yarbrough is assessing an area along Daybreak Ridge in Bachelor Gulch. Later in the day, he has other nine sites to check.
Yarbrough is looking at a log house, built a few years ago on a slope off a paved road. He has used aerial photographs to discern certain types of vegetation and group different areas in the county accordingly. While he is checking the trees – some Douglas firs, which are moderate combustion, and Aspens, low combustion – the new wildfire mitigation specialist for Eagle County, Benjamin Garrett, measures the slope of the area.
“It’s 30 degrees,” Garrett says.
The two highest risk factors for a wildfire are type of vegetation and the slope of the terrain, Yarbrough said.
“The steeper the slope, the higher the fire hazard. When you do the assessment, you have to look at different things, not just one,” he adds.
His Wildland Fire Risk checklist includes: access to the site, type of road, fire service access, street signs, vegetation characteristics, defensible space (how far vegetation is from the house,) slope, construction materials, distance to fire hydrant or water source, and whether utilities are above- or underground.
“I would give this house 74 points (out of 100). That puts it in a high hazard area,” Yarbrough says. “There’s a problem with the roofing material, wood shingles, the vegetation is too close to the house and the slope is 30 percent – steep enough to be a problem.”
If the owner of the house built an addition, Garrett says, he would be required to have a metal or concrete tile roof or some other kind of wood roof that can tolerate a fire for one hour. The addition can still be built out of log as long as they are 6 inches in diameter, which means they also could withstand a fire for one hour.
How the new regulations work
Since the regulations became effective on April 24, Garrett has checked each new building site before a building permit was issued. Once the county commissioners adopt the new map, that will speed up the process because the hazard ratings will already be in place, he adds.
“I would first look at how a developer can work with the slope and vegetation before I get in construction materials,” Garrett said.
The four hazard ratings are: low, moderate, high and extreme. Sites that have been rated low don’t need any mitigation while a site rated extreme will have to reduce the hazard rating at least to high before the county issues a building permit.
Garrett gave examples of the ratings in various neighborhoods:
– Low – downtown Eagle-Vail, along the Eagle River.
– Moderate – upper reaches of Arrowhead on steeper slopes.
– High – Whiskey Hill in Eagle-Vail.
– Extreme – Some densely forested areas of Cordillera.
“Extreme hazard areas are those heavily timbered in spruce fir,” he says.
Although the regulations can’t be enforced in incorporated parts of the county, Garrett says, several towns already have shown interest in adopting them.
The ultimate goal, Yarbrough says, is to educate people to be more fire-wise so they build structures that are more fire resistant.
“Also, we’ve been looking for mitigation of wildfire in general to keep forests healthy,” he says. “These regulations are important in a place like Eagle County because it’s a growing county.”
Wildfire mitigation measures include:
– Creating defensible space around the perimeter of new developments.
– Creating fire breaks within new developments.
– Management of fuels or vegetation, removing dead and diseased trees and strategic thinning of vegetation to help promote overall vegetation health.
– Strategically locating building sites to avoid high or extreme hazard areas.
– Standards for emergency vehicle access and turnaround areas.
– Standards for fire fighting water supply: water supply will be provided via fire hydrants in developments served by water distribution systems. In developments not served by water distribution systems, water tanks, cisterns and or dry hydrants will be provided.
Fire safety checklist
– Thin trees and brush properly within defensible space.
– Remove trash and debris from defensible space.
– Remove trees growing through a porch or other portions of a structure.
– Clear leaves and debris from the roof and gutters of structures.
– Remove branches that overhang a chimney or roof.
– Stack firewood uphill from a home or on a contour away from the home.
– Use noncombustible roof materials.
– Place shutters, fire curtains or heavy drapes on windows.
– Place screens on foundation and eave vents.
– Use a chimney screen or spark arrester in fireplaces.
– Clear vegetation from around fire hydrants, cisterns, propane tanks, etc.
– Make sure that an outdoor water supply is available with a hose, nozzle and pump.
– Post address signs that are clearly visible from the street or road.
– Make sure that driveways are wide enough for fire trucks and equipment.
– Install and test smoke detectors.
– Practice a family fire drill and evacuation plan.
Source: Colorado State Forest Service
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at email@example.com.