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Vail building regulation changes will ‘fire-harden’ the town

The new regulations only cover new construction, and will take years to have a widespread effect

The Vail Fire Department created three videos to virtually commemorate National Fire Prevention Awareness Week.
What’s a WUI? The Colorado State Forest Service defines the wildland urban interface as “any area where man-made improvements are built close to, or within, natural terrain and flammable vegetation.”   In Eagle County, that interface essentially runs the length of the Interstate 70 corridor. For more information, go to http://www.vailgov.com/fire.

VAIL — Wildfires have become more numerous, bigger and more destructive in the past 40 years. That’s a big deal in a town surrounded by public land.

The Vail Town Council last week gave initial, unanimous, approval to an ordinance that makes substantial changes to the town’s building and landscaping regulations.

Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said the new regulations are the result of more than 15 months of work, and more than a dozen meetings with various town boards.

All that work has resulted in a lengthy document that details what kinds of building and landscaping materials can be used in new construction, renovations and additions of more than 500 square feet.

The changes are “about the future,” Novak said, adding that it’s important to start now to prevent the kind of wildfire devastation that’s been seen elsewhere in the West.

Fires becoming more intense

Novak noted that in the 1960s, “large” wildfires were between 1,000 and 4,000 acres. In 2018, there were multiple fires of 100,000 acres or more across the western United States.

Novak’s memo to the council noted that the 20 largest wildfires in state history have all come in this century. Seven of the 10 largest fires in state history have occurred in the past decade.

Novak’s memo also notes that catastrophic wildfires also pose serious potential threats to both the ecological and economic well-being of the town.

“We’re seeing more commercial buildings lost in fires,” Novak said, adding that the loss of Vail’s large commercial structures could be “damaging” to the town.

In addition, closures to trails and other recreational facilities can last for months.

Paul Cada, the Vail Fire Department’s wildland fire specialist, told council members that all of Vail is at risk from a large wildfire on public lands.

Becoming ‘fire adapted’

The fire department in 2015 launched a “fire adapted community” project, focusing on reducing risk to the town.

In the course of studying ways to help “fire-harden” the town, officials found that making structures more fire-resistant is more important than vegetation management in town. But, Cada said, “we need to do both.”

Novak noted there’s a good amount of flexibility allowed in both building design and materials and landscaping options.

Those options will be discussed with owners and builders before projects go to the Vail Design Review Board.

Council member Jenn Bruno asked Novak if a renovation to her home would require removal of a large tree only a few feet from the structure.

Novak said the regulations apply only to the part of a home that’s being renovated. If the renovation is on the east side of a structure and a tree is on the west side, the new rules apply only to the east side.

Mayor Dave Chapin wondered if building to the new regulations could possible save building owners some insurance costs.

Novak replied that most insurance companies aren’t giving breaks for fire-resistant buildings and landscaping. But, he added, many insurance companies are dropping policies in fire-prone areas. Building to the new regulations could allow people to keep their insurance, or keep them from having to search for policies in the secondary market.

Council member Kim Langmaid asked if the new regulations have considered the possible environmental costs of using fire-resistant materials, and if there’s a database of building materials based on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

Novak said “there’s no real difference in toxicity” between fire-resistant and other materials.

While the changes to the town’s building code are substantial, it’s going to take a long time for those changes to appear in a significant number of buildings in Vail.

“It’s going to take many years to move the needle on this,” Novak said.

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


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