Vail, Eagle County municipalities boost education for Wildfire Preparedness Month
Taking one action each week in May will begin to reduce wildfire risk for residents
The 20 largest wildfires in Colorado’s history have occurred in the past 20 years, with four of the top five occurring between 2018 and 2020.
This statistic, highlighted by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, excludes the past two years. In 2021 alone there were multiple significant wildfire events: the Marshall Fire outside of Boulder, the Sylvan Fire in Eagle, and seven other wildfires burning more than 1,000 acres in 2021. The Marshall Fire burned over 6,000 acres and became the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history in terms of buildings destroyed.
It’s a risk and danger that’s not going anywhere either. More than half of all Coloradans — around 3 million people — live within a wildland-urban interface and have some risk of being affected by a wildfire.
For Colorado emergency response agencies, organizations and municipalities, mitigating the climbing danger of wildfires has become front of mind as temperatures rise, drought conditions persist and development in wildland-urban interfaces continues.
It’s for this reason that Gov. Jared Polis signed a proclamation last year to declare the month of May as Wildfire Awareness Month. The month aims to educate individuals about wildfire risk and create more fire-adapted communities.
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In Eagle County, heading into May, local governments are readying to create educational opportunities and reduce the overall threat of wildfires in the communities.
Understanding the risk
Wildfire mitigation and education start with understanding the risks.
In Eagle County, the challenge is that the wildland-urban interface is “pretty much everywhere,” said Birch Barron, the director of Eagle County’s emergency management department.
A report in the Vail Town Council’s May 2 meeting packet details its recent wildfire protection efforts. It highlights a National Institute for Standards and Technology study completed following the Marshall Fire, which noted that “structures built within 30 feet of each other share a high amount of risk and if one catches fire the other is also likely to ignite.”
In Vail, “62% of all town of Vail structures in the town are within 30 feet of the nearest building, showing that as a community we have a high level of shared risk among structures,” the report states.
The county’s Community Wildlife Protection Plan (most recently updated in 2011) unites many of these goals and activities in a coordinated plan uniting the towns of Vail, Avon, Basalt, Eagle, Gypsum, Minturn, Red Cliff, the county’s fire protection districts, and state and federal fire managers. In addition, some communities have their own plans, including Vail’s 2020 Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
Out of these plans and with these known risks, Eagle County and the individual municipalities in the valley have been boosting activities around mitigation and education for many years now.
Some of these efforts include ongoing fuels reduction projects with Eagle Valley Wildland as well as individual programs like Vail’s Fire Free Five initiative, which now has support for residents in implementing a 5-foot-wide zone of noncombustible landscaping around all Vail buildings. The county has also created a wildfire hazard map to not only understand where the risk lies but also to drive future regulation and identify priority areas for mitigation projects.
However, the responsibility of mitigating risk goes beyond local government and fire agencies.
“There is a lot of emphasis placed on not only the fire districts, municipalities and the county for the responsibility of protecting homes, but there’s also a shared responsibility with homeowners that they need to understand,” said Katie Jenkins, the county’s wildfire mitigation specialist. “That comes with seeking to understand what they can do around their own properties in order to mitigate the effect of a wildfire if it comes through.”
To this end, a large part of Wildfire Preparedness Month is around educating local residents about the resources available.
For its part, the county and the Eagle Valley Wildfire Collaborative (which includes a growing number of local partners) have created an action a week for the month of May. Each action is one that residents can take to reduce wildfire risk in and around their homes. This includes the following actions:
- May 1 to May 7: Sign up for EC Alerts to receive the latest information about wildfire incidents and evacuation notices.
- May 8 to May 14: Move your leftover firewood off of and out from beneath your deck to ensure that embers won’t get trapped and cause ignition.
- May 15 to May 21: Make a plan such as determining your evacuation route and creating an emergency supply kit.
- May 22 to May 28: Schedule a free REALFire home assessment and learn about wildfire safety and steps that you can take to reduce wildfire risk in and around your home.
The REALFire program is a recent county initiative where the experts will conduct home assessments to provide targeted mitigative actions for homeowners and renters. Barron said that the aim of the program is to “look at their property and understand their property’s risk from wildfire and what they can do to help reduce that risk, including cost-share assistance to get some of that work done.”
This, he added, is the first step residents can take followed closely by taking action.
“Sometimes really small, easy things that you do around your own home and property make the difference between whether or not you experience loss from a fire,” Barron said. “When it comes to taking action, what we really encourage people to do is understand those insurance coverage rates (and) take steps based on the REALfire assessment to reduce the risk that their whole new property becomes impacted by a wildfire …”
The responsibility of homeowners also includes “understanding what your insurance provider will cover for you and making sure that all of your ducks are in a row,” Jenkins said.
Part of the challenge locally, Barron said, is that while “we’re very good at the response piece. We’re very good at keeping people alive and trying to stabilize the hazard,” there’s a lack of safety net systems for these big disasters.
“At the end of the day, our system kind of says, ‘Hey, if you lost something in a disaster, you’re on your own,'” Barron said. “That’s not the way Eagle County wants to treat our community members.”
With this, Barron added that proactive measures need to include “helping people understand that their ability to be resilient and their ability to recover after a fire or a flood is really dependent on them understanding what they are covered for, whether it’s insurance or whether they choose just to keep an extra amount of money in their savings account.”
For more information on the county’s Wildfire Preparedness resources, visit EagleCounty.us and search for its Mitigation & Wildfire Protection page.
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