Vail and Eagle County, officials dial in wildfire evacuation planning | VailDaily.com

Vail and Eagle County, officials dial in wildfire evacuation planning

This map from the National Weather Service shows wildfire danger across the United States. The parts in red, which include Eagle County, are worrisome.

EAGLE COUNTY — When it comes to wildfires, the Vail Valley has been fortunate over the years. But public safety managers still spend a lot of time thinking about worst case scenarios.

At the Tuesday, May 1, meeting of the Vail Town Council, Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak and Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger spent some time updating council members on evacuation and other plans.

Novak and other fire officials spend a lot of time tracking fire weather, drought conditions and other factors that could contribute to wildfires in the town's constricted valley.

Given the relatively dry winter just past, there's concern over the coming fire season.

According to the National Weather Service's fire weather site, much of the western United States is facing the potential of some serious fire weather over the next couple of months. The red zones include Eagle County on the map for June.

Those are the sorts of things Novak and other area fire officials talk about in weekly conference calls.

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Watching and planning

In addition to those regional calls, officials also work on specific evacuation plans.

In Vail, those plans break down to different neighborhoods in town. The town's dispatch center and the county's EC Alerts system can notify people in those areas.

The plan includes evacuation centers and lays out ways people can get to them, whether by car or bus. People who can't get out — particularly during incidents including fast-moving fires, hazardous material spills or other emergencies — may be asked to shelter in place.

People should be prepared to stay in their homes for at least 72 hours, which means having food, water, medicine and other supplies on hand.

Much of the town's evacuation plan centers on Interstate 70. An emergency is most likely to come from just one direction — usually the west — so heading east is the most likely way out.

But if people can't evacuate, then the town has established safe zones in the West Vail shopping area, the town's parking structures, Ford Park and other areas.

Vail's isn't the only evacuation plan in the county, of course.

Around the county

Eagle County wildfire specialist Eric Lovgren said most communities and neighborhoods have plans. As opposed to Vail, which has an interstate highway that can be used to get out, many neighborhoods — from Cordillera to Eby Creek Mesa near Eagle to Red Hill in Gypsum — have more limited options.

Lovgren said county planners have been adamant over the past several years that new developments have more than one way in and out.

In already developed areas, residents sometimes have to work on improvements in their sole point of access.

One such neighborhood near Basalt found itself cut off several years ago.

Sparks from a disabled vehicle sparked a wildfire in that neighborhood, and residents were unable to get out on the single-lane gravel road.

Lovgren said that fire — as well as several fatal vehicle accidents in the years preceding the fire — led the neighborhood to create a special district. Property taxes from that district were used as matching funds for grants that paid for road improvements in the area.

Sheltering people, animals

Besides getting people out of harm's way — and people knowing what they need to take in an evacuation — many of us also have pets or livestock.

In Vail, people can bring their pets to evacuation areas, but not to Red Cross-established shelters.

In rural areas, residents need to know how to get horses and other livestock to safety.

Lovgren said Eagle County has an animal response team that can work with emergency management officials to evacuate animals. Dogs can be taken to the county's animal shelter in Eagle. Larger animals can be taken to the county fairgrounds.

All this preparation takes work and, sometimes, public participation.

Lovgren noted that Gypsum residents were asked not long ago to participate in an exercise that brought people to shelters, where they were provided with more information about wildfires and evacuation.

A similar exercise is planned this year in the Wildridge neighborhood.

Knowing when to leave is just as important as knowing where to go. Lovgren stressed that subscribing to the area's alert system is key, and the town of Vail this week tested a mobile alert for cellphone users. Those alerts traveled at least as far as Avon. There's also the reverse-911 system for land-line users and subscribers.

But as important as getting out is getting out at the right time.

"In wildfires, it might not be time to leave immediately," Lovgren said. That's why having a source of information is critical.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.

What you can do

In Eagle County, residents can sign up for EC Alerts, a system that can provide neighborhood-specific alerts on highway incidents and other public-safety notifications. The system is free,and can provide both text and email alerts for as much, or as little, of the county as you want.

For more information on how to help protect your home, or what to do in an emergency, the national FireWise program is a good online resource.