Vail lessons in wildfires |

Vail lessons in wildfires

Lauren Glendenning
Vail, CO Colorado
NWS Forest Maintenance 2 LG 7-9-09

VAIL, Colorado –An unusually wet summer may have made fire dangers seem less severe to local residents, but the U.S. Forest Service and firefighters are still watching the threat closely.

The Gore Range Natural Science School, a local nonprofit that teaches children and adults about the environment, led a trip into a West Vail section of the White River National Forest with Ross Wilmore, from the U.S. Forest Service, and Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s fire mitigation specialist. The mission was to teach a group of interested locals about the dangers that are still out there.

They weren’t trying to scare people, but they did want people to know some of the details and misperceptions about the lodgepole pine tree stands that are dead or dying because of the mountain pine beetle infestation.

There are noticeable piles of cut wood laying on the hillsides of West Vail. They’re easy to spot from Interstate 70 and many people may have seen the piles burning during the winter as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts, in combination with the town of Vail and Eagle County, to protect the valley from wildfires.

The local officials are trying to prevent fire devastation as best as they can, but it’s local homeowners who need to do their part, too.

“(Local homeowners) aren’t out of the woods just because we cut a 500-foot swath on the hillside above them,” Lovgren said.

Some homes directly below the West Vail burn piles, which create a buffer zone between the forest and homes, don’t appear to be what forest and fire officials call “defensible.”

When homes with wooden decks, junk laying around the yard and a lot of landscaping that can catch fire easily sit below a burning forest, it might not matter how much work local officials have done to protect that home.

Forest fires send embers shooting out as far as a mile or two away, Wilmore said.

And in the case of embers shooting into the town during a fire, firefighters are going to protect human lives before anything else.

“There’s never enough people to fight the fire,” Lovgren said. “They’re not going to put themselves in harm’s way to protect your property. They’ll work to get you out, get your pets out.”

It doesn’t mean the home will absolutely burn, but it’s up to homeowners to make sure the home is as fire-proof as possible. That means get rid of the wood shake roofs, the ignitable ferns and the fire wood sitting below the deck of the house, Wilmore said. People need to be responsible, he said.

The mountain pine beetle is a natural part of the lodgepole pine forest’s ecosystem, Wilmore said. The beetles attack the barks of the trees, nest inside the tree and lay eggs. The beetles block the tree’s ability to drink water and end up killing it, leaving the tree dried out and ready to burn.

The last time there were major wildfires in the White River National Forest was in the 1880s, Wilmore said. The last major beetle infestation here was in the 1980s, when about 30 percent of the trees were killed.

This infestation, which began a few years ago, is estimated to kill about 90 percent of the lodgepole pine trees in the area, according to the town of Vail’s forest health handbook.

Fires are driven more by what’s on the ground, not by the trees themselves, he said. When the canopy cover of the trees dies off and more sunlight gets to the surface, grass dries out and increases fire risks. Dead trees also blow over more easily in high winds, leaving a big open area uncovered and ready to ignite.

It’s the surfaces, not the actual trees, that really determine how severe a fire can get, Wilmore said.

But fire isn’t all bad – pine cones need heat from either fire or sunshine to open and release seeds. That’s how new forests begin and old ones die off.

“Fire and lodgepole pines coexist,” Wilmore said.

The problem is that people and fire don’t coexist, but local and federal officials don’t want to overspend and over-prepare based on hysteria, he said. They try to find a balance of how much work is too much, and how much is not enough.

Lovgren said it’s all about starting in the backyards and moving out from there. He also points out that about 75 percent of the fires that start in the county start because of human activity.

“We have to protect the forest from us,” Lovgren said.

Since most of the forest is dead or will likely die because of the pine beetle infestation, it means the trees will eventually fall and a fire will more than likely burn someday. The best thing people can do is be ready, Wilmore said.

“Fire is part of living in the woods,” Wilmore said.

Eagle County has an emergency alert system that sends e-mails, text messages or phone calls when there are emergencies like wildfires in the area. To sign up, visit

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