Vail, Forest Service work to protect town |

Vail, Forest Service work to protect town

Lauren Glendenning
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado – Colorado’s fiery start to summer didn’t kickstart any local planning that wasn’t already under way, but large fires such as the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires have piqued the interest of forest and fire officials.

Officials have known that wildfires are a real possibility here ever since the mountain pine beetle epidemic began ravaging local forests. The first signs of an outbreak were around 1996, and since then, more than 4 million acres of lodgepole pine trees have been killed.

Vail Mayor Andy Daly asked Fire Chief Mark Miller on Tuesday what is being done in the town of Vail to protect residents and visitors from wildfires. The answer is that a fire-mitigation effort is ongoing, and there’s more work to be done.

“I’d like to understand those areas of vulnerability so we can keep them in mind in discussions … for strategic, long-term fire prevention,” Daly said.

The term “prevention” isn’t one the U.S. Forest Service uses too often – wildfires are generally mitigated, not prevented, but when referencing fires that burn through towns and threaten structures and safety, prevention is preferred.

The Forest Service, in collaboration with Vail Resorts, is in charge of fire mitigation work on Vail Mountain and on most of the mountain terrain at Beaver Creek. There are two projects going on at Vail Mountain right now, said Don Dressler, the winter sports and trails ranger for the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District.

The first is logging around the communications site near Eagle’s Nest, just outside the rope line off Simba. Vail Resorts and the Forest Service have worked together on defensible space around that site, and more work is needed, Dressler said.

“Given the (statewide fire) events of this summer, there’s been some interest in making that (defensible space) slightly larger,” he said.

The other project on Vail Mountain is related to public safety, although fire mitigation is a part of it. Vail Mountain is clearing dead and dying trees between Eagle’s Nest and Mid-Vail, along the new gondola line (or old Vista Bahn line) and at the bottom of the Black Forest Race Arena near Chair 2, Dressler said.

“Those are areas of high concentrations of people with chair lifts, restaurants, cat walks – a lot of people,” Dressler said, adding that the areas also have high tree mortality and are easily accessible for cutting via mountain roads.

The tree cutting totals about 43 acres for those two Vail Mountain projects. And because it’s Forest Service lands, a timber sale is required.

Most of the work outside of the ski resorts is on trees that are safety hazards on roads and trails, said Dave Neely, district ranger for the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District. Efforts are under way on Hard Scrabble, Tigiwon Road and Red Sandstone Road, he said, and are planned for Red and White Mountain Road and Muddy Pass. Work also is planned and is under contract near Minturn.

The Forest Service gets budget allocations every year to deal with the pine-beetle epidemic, Neely said. The priorities are always the areas where people congregate and travel.

The Forest Service also has done a lot with the wildland urban interface – a term used to describe the areas where the forest meets development. Intermountain, in West Vail, is a good example of a wildland urban interface.

That’s the area that Daly has concerns about for the town of Vail, mainly because a wildfire could come over the mountain from Minturn and threaten many homes.

The Vail Fire Department has created a large so-called defensible space around Intermountain on property that belongs to the town of Vail, Miller said.

“There are still lots of hazardous trees on private property in the Intermountain area – we’re trying to work with homeowners to get trees removed,” Miller said, adding that there is a lot of adjacent Forest Service property that requires cutting, too.

Miller hopes to meet with the Forest Service in the coming days to discuss a more collaborative plan but acknowledges that the Forest Service has a lot of procedural red tape and the process can often take a while.

Throughout the town of Vail, the public-safety risk is constantly being assessed on town land, Miller said. There’s always more that can be done, though, he added.

Neely said the Forest Service “feels pretty good” about the fire risk but echoes Miller in that more can be done.

“We’ve always known that large wildfires are not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Neely said. “We can’t wait for a bad fire season. … We try not to be reactive in our management. We look at the whole ecosystem view and plan projects for the long term.”

Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or

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