Vail Valley under red flag fire warning through Tuesday
Dry conditions, combined with warm temperatures and strong winds, combine to create weather that can spread wildfire
The National Weather Service on Monday declared a red flag fire warning for eastern Utah and much of western Colorado including Eagle County. It wasn’t the first such declaration this season and is unlikely to be the last.
Red flag warnings are issued when there’s a combination of warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds create conditions that would allow the quick spread of a wildfire.
Greater Eagle Fire Protection District Chief Doug Cupp said this season is shaping up to be more fire-prone than 2019, but probably not as serious as the drought summer of 2018.
Cupp said a high-elevation snowfall last week helped conditions, which currently are about average for this time of year. The 2019 season started well, thanks to a cool, wet spring. The drought year of 2018 was one of the most serious fire seasons in memory.
Not like 2018
“We’re nowhere near,” the 2018 conditions, Cupp said, noting that snow essentially stopped in February, and the summer monsoonal flow never developed.
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At this point, local fire officials are working to get out information about fire danger and automatic fire restrictions.
Following the 2018 season, Eagle County adopted regulations that automatically impose fire restrictions whenever a red flag warning is issued. When no restrictions are in place, a red flag warning elevates the county to Stage 1 restrictions. If restrictions are already in place, a red flag warning elevates restrictions to next level.
While Eagle County’s terrain ranges from high desert to high alpine, those restrictions are consistent in order to avoid confusion.
While Gypsum’s fire danger is currently elevated, the danger in and around Vail is relatively low.
“Most of the vegetation in the upper end of the county (is) still pretty green,” Vail Fire Department Wildfire Specialist Paul Cada wrote in an email. But, he added, the dry, warm, windy spring has resulted in more red flag warnings than usual.
While Eagle County has already had a handful of small fires, there hasn’t yet been anything serious. But large fires elsewhere in the region have prompted the Weather Service to issue warnings about atmospheric smoke from those blazes.
And the warm weather is accelerating snowmelt in the higher elevation.
“We’ve seen river levels come up in the past few days,” said Tracy LeClair of the Eagle River Fire Protection District.
While the forecast holds little immediate hope of rainfall, LeClair said occasional storms roll through the valley that can spark wildfires with lightning.
Mitigation is improving
While local fire departments are keeping a careful eye on conditions, those departments are always working on ways to help homeowners stay safe if a wildfire breaks out near a populated area.
LeClair said those efforts are more effective now than they were a decade ago. That’s due in part to changes in some municipal and county building codes. For instance, people can no longer use wooden shake shingles on their roofs. LeClair added homeowners were once required to plant trees close to homes. Those rules have changed to put trees farther away from structures.
Cupp noted that education and mitigation programs have also improved over the last several years. Those programs have been bolstered by data from large fires including the 2018 Lake Christine fire near Basalt.
“We have a lot of fire data that shows common factors of why one home burns and another will not,” Cupp said.
A big part of that data shows that in a widespread wildfire, as many as 50% of homes that burn are ignited by flying embers.
“It’s more than just removing fuels from around the house,” Cupp said, adding that homeowners need to work to clean rain gutters and remove flammable debris from around a home.
“The more we can educate people on the small things that make huge differences,” the more effective mitigation efforts can be, Cupp said.
But, like virtually any project, nothing is ever truly finished.
“No matter how much work folks have done, there’s always some work that can be done,” Cada wrote.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.