Helping Bailey out
And local fire chiefs say if the Vail Valley isn’t soaked by its normal heavy rains this spring, Eagle County also may need help fighting fires in our parched fields and mountainsides.
“Our crews will be out in a neighborhood protecting homes,” Vail Fire Chief John Gulick said. “And if I send equipment out now, when we get a fire they’ll come and help us.”
Four-man crews from the Vail Fire Department and the Eagle River Fire Protection District left the county in their engines Thursday morning for the Pike National Forest in Park County, where a 2,400-acre fire had forced the evacuation of all 4,400 residents of the town of Bailey, as well as several other subdivisions.
Cooler weather Wednesday night allowed many residents to return to their homes in Bailey, about 35 miles south of Denver and about 95 miles southeast of Vail.
Shifting winds have prevented firefighters from bringing the destructive “Snaking fire” under control. But the Vail and Eagle River crews won’t be on the fire lines. Their assignment is to try to keep homes from being devoured by flames, said Chief Charlie Moore, of the Eagle River Fire Protection District.
“This is what we’re trained to do. So when the need arises, it gets the adrenaline going,” Moore said. “It’s our job”
Both crews were warned they might be needed Wednesday night. They were called out Thursday morning and left Eagle County around noon.
Vail has sent Capt. Jim Spell, Technician Tom Talbot and firefighters Jake Savona and Ryan Becker. Battalion Chief John Willson, Lt. George Wilson and a pair of firefighters made up the Eagle River Crew.
“These guys that went out had to make family arrangements,” Gulick said. “It was a difficult thing to make happen, but we pulled it off in two and a half hours.”
Firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, Eagle and Gypsum snuffed three small wildfires north of Dotsero Thursday.
“We didn’t get any lighting, so chances are the fires were caused by humans,” U.S. Forest Service fire technician Eric Rebitzke said. “The whole valley is very volatile right now.”
Each of the three fires were about a tenth of an acre in size and were controlled and contained Thursday afternoon, Rebitzke said.
“We were lucky the wind wasn’t blowing like it was Wednesday,” he said.
Fire dangers have swayed from very high to extreme from Dowd Junction to Gypsum, Rebitzke said.
Moore and other local fire chiefs are wary of wildfires breaking out in Eagle County this summer. But the more it rains or snows, the lower the risk of fire will be.
“Right here in Avon, we’re not in a critical situation yet,” Moore said. “But if we don’t get moisture, if this drought is statewide, it’ll be our turn for wildfires.
“But we’re looking forward to getting some snow this week,” he said.
A matter of snow
The snowpack in Vail Pass and other surrounding areas is about 50 percent of normal. Lower snowpack means there’s less snow to melt and moisten trees and brush.
The one bit of good news is the snowpack on the passes surrounding the Vail Valley is among the heaviest in the state. And weather forecasters are still watching a developing “El Nino” weather system in the Pacific to predict how much rain western Colorado will get this summer. A stronger El Nino could mean heavier rains, forecasters at the National Weather Service say.
The fire crews that left for Park County Thursday had to bring their sleeping bags and MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. The crews will likely be sleeping alongside their engine in a camp set up for personnel battling the blaze.
“They’ll be treated very well,” Gulick said. “They’ll bring in a flatbed trailer that’s nothing but a cookstove and make 55 gallons of coffee at a time.”
More Eagle County firefighters were preparing to join the fire lines Thursday afternoon. Vail firefighters Tanner Balzer and Reggie Blacke were packing their gear in case they are called in to help on a Colorado River fire crew, Gulick said.
“We’re stretching real thin to make this happen,” he said. “But this is a lifetime opportunity for these young guys. And we believe in helping people to grow professionally and personally.”
Local fire stations won’t be left unmanned while the crews are helping out down south.
“We’re not going to leave any stations unmanned in our own district,” Moore said. “We’re still adequately covered.”
Three Vail dispatchers will also head to Park County today to relieve exhausted personnel.
“We didn’t really have problems getting volunteers,” said Michelle Grey, a Vail dispatch supervisor. “We’ve all been there and we know how hard it can get. We’re excited to go down and lend a helping hand.”
Grey said she, dispatcher Beth Dobransky, and interim dispatch manager Julie Anderson would head down to Park County around 5 a.m. this morning and return home tonight. The dispatchers will help field phone calls and coordinate communication between fire crews.
Gulick said the firefighters staying behind also have to make some sacrifices by working extra hours to cover the shifts of the crew that has gone to Park County.
“This is first time we’re sending an engine out and those guys are pumped up,” Gulick said. “That’s very exciting for all of us. We’re gonna make town of Vail very proud of us.”
How to protect homes from wildfires
Over 8,000 acres of vegetation has already burned in Colorado this spring. There have been no major fires in the Vail Valley but dry weather and high temperatures have Eagle County fire officials on high alert.
“We are in a severe to extreme drought condition this spring as timber brush and grass dry out after a relatively short winter,” Vail Fire Chief John Gulick said.
Fire officials won’t sound the alarm until they see how much rain and snow falls on the valley this spring. Heavier rain, obviously, means lower fire danger. But firefighters in Eagle County are preparing for a potentially long wildfire season and encouraging residents and homeowners to plan ahead to protect their homes.
A list of prevention tips from the Vail Fire Department:
– Thinning and pruning trees and brush
– Removing trash and debris around the home.
– Cutting grass and weeds within 10 feet of structures, propane tanks and other utilities.
– Removing trees growing through porches, decks or roofs.
– Keeping roof and rain gutters clear of pine needles, leaves and debris.
– Removing tree branches that overhang within 15 feet of chimneys and roofs.
– Stacking firewood uphill at least 30 feet away from home.
– Utilizing non-combustible roofing materials.
– Making sure foundation, eaves and soffit vents have screens.
– Checking chimney spark arrester, which should be a half-inch screen.
– Clearing vegetation within three feet of fire hydrants.
– Making sure you have a garden hose, shovel and fire extinguisher nearby.
– Posting reflective address numbers so they’re visible from streets or
roads and ensuring your driveway has adequate width (20 feet) and height
(15 feet) for clearance of emergency vehicles.
– Maintaining an irrigated greenbelt near your home using grass, flowers,
ornamental shrubs, rock gardens or xeroscapes.
For more information on wildfire safety or for a Vail property evaluation by the Fire Department, call 479-2250.