Vail forest work cuts fire danger
September 3, 2013
VAIL — Alex and Bob Linn are happy to hear chain saws in the summer.
The Linns live along Greenhill Court in Vail, their home hard against the forest. Bob Linn said he has for years sprayed the evergreens on the property to keep pine beetles out of them. But beetles have killed parts of the forest around his property, and the vegetation is thick going up the hill, from private property to town-owned open space to national forest property atop the ridge and beyond.
For the past several years, crews from the Vail Fire Department have been working along Greenhill Court and other areas, thinning, clear-cutting and occasionally burning to build fire resistance on the town's borders with the public lands that surround it.
Tom Talbot has helped spearhead that effort since about 1998 and said a lot of progress has been made in terms of both work accomplished and changed attitudes.
Some of that attitude change came from U.S. Forest Service officials, Talbot said.
"We used to talk about protecting homes from the forest if it caught fire," Talbot said. "They switched that around and talked about protecting the forest in case a resident's home caught fire."
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For the past several years, a lot of work on protecting the town from wildfire has involved getting homeowners on board with plans to thin areas around the town, as well as on private property.
While town money is spent only on town property, crews will help private property owners. Crews will help identify dead or diseased trees on private property, and the town will bring by the industrial chipper it uses every summer to any property owner who asks.
Then, of course, there are the guys Talbot calls the "ground pounders" — a crew of six seasonal employees, all certified wildland firefighters, who do the actual cutting. The firefighters are broken into two crews, so work can be done every day from early May through the end of October — unless the guys are called out to fight a fire.
Six trained, fit men — seven, when Talbot picks up a chain saw — can clear and thin a lot of territory, but there's still far more forest than crew. Summer work is generally done a few acres at a time — a 25-acre project is a big one.
But all the work adds up. Projects this summer range from the south side of town to north of Interstate 70 on Buffehr Creek Road on the north. Another project is thinning trees around a cell phone and radio communications facility in East Vail.
Sometimes, the work requires a gentle hand. Some areas are cleared so new aspens can sprout, since those trees are more fire-resistant than evergreens. Other areas are cut back to keep a potential fire out of the treetops, where a blaze is virtually impossible to fight.
"We want to bring it from the crown to the ground," Talbot said.
Sometimes helicopters haul out big trees from areas it's hard to get a chipper to. Other times, smaller timber is stacked in piles, waiting for a solid few inches of winter snow cover for a burn.
Talbot said those small fires won't harm the soil underneath because they're relatively quick and don't carry the volcanic heat of a large fire that sterilizes everything in its path.
Picking out next year's projects takes work, too. And there is a big project coming in Intermountain in the next two or three years, Talbot said.
That's all good news for the Linns.
"We're really happy the town of Vail took out the beetle kill above our property," Bob Linn said.
Alex Linn put it simply: "We don't want our house to burn down," she said. "We like healthy forests."
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 and firstname.lastname@example.org.