Prevent major house fires this winter season |

Prevent major house fires this winter season

Melanie Wong
Flames engulf part of the Matterhorn Inn complex in West Vail on Nov. 22. Firefighters quickly responded and put out the blaze, but extensive damage rendered the building a total loss. The cause of the fire was an improperly made fire in a fireplace.
Vail Fire Department | Special to the Daily |

VAIL — In the past month, Vail has seen two major home fires, including one that resulted in the total loss of 11 condo units — an uncommon occurrence in a small resort town.

Both fires were in the West Vail area, in buildings that are believed to be of 1970s construction. However, according to Vail’s interim fire chief Steve Pischke, both fires were entirely preventable.

“Both of the fires that we’ve had of late were due to carelessness on some part,” he said. “In both instances the smoke detectors were not working, which is a very dangerous situation. Both situations were extremely lucky in that someone discovered the fire and was able to alert other occupants and get them out. It could have been an extremely devastating situation.”

“Both of the fires that we’ve had of late were due to carelessness on some part.”
Steve Pischke
Vail’s interim fire chief


The fire at the Matterhorn Inn complex on Nov. 22 destroyed three of the building’s 11 units and because of smoke, electrical and roof damage, the other eight units were declared uninhabitable. Fire officials said the fire was caused when either embers or a log from an improperly built fire came out of the fireplace. The screen was not in place, firefighters said.

No one was injured, but three cats died in the fire. Dollar loss was estimated at $1.3 million.


The second fire happened in West Vail’s Intermountain neighborhood on Dec. 13 when a blanket fell behind a couch onto a baseboard heater, eventually catching a wall and window sill on fire as well. Someone woke up to the smell of smoke and the inhabitants all got out safely. No one was injured, although the townhome had significant smoke damage estimated at $10,000 to $20,000.

The mistake in that situation, besides not having a working smoke detector, was having a couch pushed too far up to a base heater and allowing a flammable object to get lodged in the back, Pischke said.


While the recent spate of residential fires is unusual, Pischke said those fires brought the number of residential fires in the town of Vail this year to eight, which is an average number. (Not all of those fires were as serious as the two recent ones, he added.)

In addition, there was one fire in a place of public assembly, two in a store or office structure, and 30 fires caused by rubbish burn, wildland fires or car fires. That brings the total fire count in Vail to 41. An average year brings 45 to 55 total fires.

Fire safety

The winter and the holidays are an important time to make sure your house is fire safe, Pischke said. He recommends the following precautions.

Smoke detectors and sprinklers: Every home should have working smoke detectors. From the date of manufacture, detectors are functional for up to 10 years, meaning that if you live in a home that was built in the ’80s or ’90s, then your original detectors need to be changed. Checking batteries in the fall and the spring are a good rule of thumb, Pischke said.

Fireplaces: For natural wood-burning fireplaces or pellet stoves, always use the screen or glass shield. Make sure your flue and chimney aren’t blocked by soot and carbon. The rule is that if you burn a full cord of wood, you should have the chimney cleaned by a professional cleaner.

Also, don’t ever leave fires unattended.

“I know this happens — people start a fire in the morning to get things warm and leave for work the entire day,” Pischke said. “That’s not a good idea with wood-burning fireplaces.”

Floorboard heaters: Keep couches, chairs and any other furniture 4 to 5 inches away from the heater, and keep combustible items away entirely. If a material is repeatedly brought to high temperatures and cooled down, the ignition temperature can actually be lowered, making it easier for the item to catch fire.

Christmas trees: Keep natural trees watered. Trees can take water daily if needed to keep it from drying out. Once the pine needles start to get brittle or fall off to the touch, then it’s time to throw out the tree.

Snow/ice blockage: Winter can bring blocked doors due to snow and frozen windows. Make sure there are multiple ways out of the building, Pischke said.

“Living in the mountains, it’s important to have the ability to get out of the building. It’s not hard for a window to freeze. All it takes is some moisture to get in, freezing temperatures at night, and you can’t open the window.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

Support Local Journalism