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New wildfire legislation on tap

Veronica Whitney

“It’s time to do it; we’ve been considering this for almost a year,” said Michael Gallagher, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners are considering changing land-use regulations to incorporate wildfire mitigation measures that would protect structures and reduce the risk of fires spreading. The issue comes back before them on Dec. 17.

“We don’t have wildfires threatening us right now, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a threat,” said County Commissioner Tom Stone.

In Eagle County, the Panorama Fire in July charred 1,600 acres near Basalt. The fire followed the Hayman and the Coal Seam fires that burned thousands of acres and homes near Denver and Glenwood Springs, respectively.

So far, there have been more than half-dozen hearings before the commissioners and three community hearings to get public input on the proposed regulations.

Firefighters have agreed that proper mitigation provides less fuel for a fire.

The measures, already recommended for approval by the county’s planning commission, would apply to all new construction and additions to existing structures in unincorporated areas of the county the potential for wildland fires exist.

“It has taken so long because it’s a very complex issue,” said Bob Narracci, planning division manager for Eagle County. “These are new regulations that will have an impact on many people in the county.”

If the commissioners adopt the regulations, they will take effect next spring, Narracci said.

The proposed regulations would establish standards for vegetation management. In most cases, that would mean removing trees and brush close to buildings to prevent a wildfire from moving in too close, depending upon the level of hazard rating. A clause addressing internal sprinkling systems has been removed from the draft, Narraccci said.

“The commissioners want us to explore how much it will cost to have the hazard rating and mapping process done through a consultant, so it can be done quickly,” Narracci said.

Hazardous areas typically are steep, heavily vegetated areas with limited access and with little or no water available for firefighting purposes. High hazard areas include Eby Creek, north of Eagle, Bellyache Ridge in Wolcott, Cordillera and portions of Eagle-Vail, Narracci said.

A wildfire hazard map will help rate an area according to its topography, vegetation and water availability.

“The new regulations will mean additional cost because you’ll need to remove vegetation, create fire breaks and an appropriate water system,” Narracci said.

Jim Mandel, a Bellyache Ridge resident and senior vice president of commercial development with Vail Resorts development company, said he is concerned about the clear-cutting regulations proposed by the legislation.

“The reason we moved here is to have trees,” Mandel said. “I support clearing the underbrush but not taking the trees. I also don’t support making the regulations applicable to existing houses in case of a remodel. That would be very expensive.”

Scot Hunn, director of the Design Review Administration for Beaver Creek, said he’s concerned the regulations would change the character of communities.

In addition to the proposed regulations, Stone said, the commissioners might someday consider a retroactive ordinance that would require all structures in the county be brought into compliance with the wildfire regulations.

“You can’t fireproof a house, but these regulations will make the homes more defensible against wildfires,” Stone said. “Enforcement of both, however, will be difficult. Vegetation management will be costly as well as enforcing the regulations retroactively. Also, once the home is in compliance there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.”

Apart from the regulations, Stone said there’s a need to address the lack of forest health.

“This makes the forests prone to fires. We need to work with the forest service to manage the land better,” he said.

If the county adopts these regulations, some towns could be interested in adopting similar ones, Narracci said.

“This is an important step for the county to take,” said County Commissioner Arn Menconi. “After all the input we’ve received from the planning commission, developers and firefighters, we have some consensus to move forward.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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