Vail officials working on plans to prevent, or recover from, wildfires
By the numbers
2: Local wildfires in the past two weeks.
5: Of Colorado’s 20 largest wildfires occurred in 2018.
74: Days the wildfire season in Colorado has extended since 1970.
13,000: Acres burned in the Lake Christine fire near Basalt.
EAGLE COUNTY — With all of the recent snowfall, it might be easy to forget that after a dry spring and summer, we’ve had a very dry fall. That’s going to continue until there’s more snow cover on the valley floor.
Firefighters have had to put out a pair of small wildfires in the past couple of weeks, one in East Vail due to a downed power line and one sparked by a dump truck with mechanical problems along Interstate 70 between Edwards and Wolcott. Both fires were quickly extinguished.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak on Tuesday, Nov. 20, provided the Vail Town Council with an update about the extended fire season, and what planning the department is doing in case a large fire hits the town.
There really isn’t a “fire season” any more, Novak said, adding that the new term is “fire year.”
The fire season throughout Colorado is now 74 days longer than it was in 1970, Novak said, adding that the nature of wildfires has also changed in the past 50 years. In the 1960s, fires were classified as “large” if they consumed between 1,000 and 4,000 acres. Anything of 100,000 acres or more was classified as a “mega-fire.”
In 2018, there were multiple fires that size in Colorado alone, Novak said. Five of the state’s 20 largest wildfires occurred this year.
More fires, more impacts
Those fires are also having greater impacts on the human-built environment.
Those are things town officials need to think about when planning for fires and their after-effects.
“What would we do without 200 homes?” Novak said.
With the effects on both the human and natural environments in mind, Vail fire officials are working on plans that reflect national recommendations. The top three parts of those recommendations include helping create fire-resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities and ways to provide safe, effective responses to fires.
Prevention is a crucial part of that strategy, Novak said. For at least the first two hours of a serious wildfire, Novak said that, at most, 10 fire trucks could respond. That includes crews from around the valley. It would be tough to protect an entire neighborhood with just that much manpower, Novak said.
Looking to the future, a fire plan could include requirements for fire-resistant construction and landscaping, phased in over time.
Vail wildland fire specialist Paul Cada told the council the town follows the guidelines of a 2003 wildfire plan. But, Cada said, that plan doesn’t address Vail’s specific needs.
Planning is taking place now, and a draft of a comprehensive plan should be delivered to the Town Council in the spring of 2019.
“We’ve received some really good input (from residents),” Cada said. That will be incorporated into the coming plan, he added.
Even without a Vail-specific plan, residents can do a lot to help lessen wildfire’s dangers to their homes.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Tracy LeClair, the community risk manager for the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District said fire mitigation is important, even as the seasons change. That includes getting rid of dried leaves, pine needles and other debris around a home.
LeClair said that in the Camp fire that devastated Paradise, California, ember showers traveled for miles. Those wind-driven embers were the cause of most structure losses, LeClair said.
When the Lake Christine fire near Basalt blew up the evening of July 4 this year, wind blew embers into unexpected areas.
Beyond residences, Novak said a plan for Vail needs to include businesses, and advice for business owners to stay open, or quickly reopen, in the event of a wildfire. That will be crucial for the town’s economy if a wildfire hits.
Then there’s the environment. Beyond the human environment, Novak said a big fire could have a devastating effect on water quality in Gore Creek.
“We really need to take on every strategy to protect the community,” Novak said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2930.