Eagle County wildfire danger ‘moderate,’ fire district stresses prevention
Here’s a look at the National Weather Service’s forecast for Avon:
Today: Sunny, with a high of 70.
Thursday: Sunny, with a high of 77
Friday: Sunny, with a high of 76.
Saturday: Sunny with a high of 80.
EAGLE COUNTY — This is the season when fire officials start to take serious looks at relative humidity, fuel moisture and, of course, the chance for rain. So far, the wildfire danger is “moderate” through much of the county. But a combination of warm temperatures, strong winds and no precipitation is starting to dry out vegetation, especially in lower elevations. It’s a pattern that occurs every year. In fact, 2016’s Red Table wildfire near Sylvan Lake State Park occurred in late June.
But those weather patterns — and a good-sized wildfire in far northwestern Colorado — have the full attention of the people who fight these blazes.
Wind has been the biggest factor this week. Strong winds Monday helped fan the flames of the Dead Dog fire in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties from roughly 40 acres Sunday afternoon to 16,470 acres as of about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Craig Daily Press.
Local agencies sent crews and equipment to help fight that fire, and smoke settled into the Vail Valley on Monday night.
Warm temperatures and winds prompted the National Weather Service on Monday to issue a red flag warning for Eagle County at elevations below 7,500 feet. That’s most of the populated part of the county. Those warnings alert fire agencies that conditions are ripe for wildfires to spark and burn.
That warning expired at 7 p.m. Monday and wasn’t renewed Tuesday.
But Eagle River Fire Protection District Public Information Officer Tracy LeClair said while the wind had eased, relative humidity remained low — well below 20 percent.
The Eagle River Fire Protection District stretches from the top of Tennessee Pass through Minturn and then west to Wolcott. It’s the most geographically diverse fire district in the county, with terrain ranging from high alpine to high desert.
Calls about smoke
LeClair said the district’s main office in Avon received a number of calls Monday from residents concerned about smoke in the valley. Trucks were dispatched to the Bellyache area near Wolcott to check on smoke reports that turned out to be unfounded.
While the area fire danger isn’t high yet, LeClair said district officials are trying to educate residents and visitors about being safe with fire.
“We’re reminding people to be careful with open flames, to put their campfires out and don’t throw cigarettes out their car windows,” LeClair said.
Those cautions apply at home, too.
“If the wind blows over a charcoal grill, it could be trouble,” she added.
As the seasons change, fire officials from the Colorado River drainage — roughly Dillon to the Colorado-Utah border — hold a conference call every week to talk about conditions in their communities, as well as general conditions. During dry spells, those meetings can determine whether fire restrictions or outright open-burning bans are imposed by local fire officials — the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and county sheriffs.
While the wildfire season is upon us, people in the wildfire business work all year to help create safer communities.
Protecting the interface
Eric Lovgren is Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation specialist. For years, Lovgren and fire officials around the region have been trying to work with property owners and communities, particularly those in what’s called the “wildland/urban interface,” to help protect homes from wildfires.
Lovgren said a lot of that self-protection is relatively easy and can be as simple as moving firewood off a home’s deck or cleaning debris from rain gutters.
There’s more to be done, of course, which is the point of the state of Colorado’s Fire Adapted Communities program.
The program provides educational resources, but it also can provide certificates that homeowners or communities have completed basic fire-protection work.
There’s more to that certification than simply something to hang above the fireplace mantel. In the wake of devastating wildfires and floods in 2013, a number of insurance companies increased rates, or canceled policies altogether, of homeowners in those wildland/urban zones. A home that’s hard to insure is also hard to sell, so the Colorado Association of Realtors got involved in the program.
The state program was refined in Boulder County. In July 2016, the Cold Spring fire near Nederland burned hundreds of acres. In all, 19 homes were threatened by the fire. But, Lovgren said, all of those homeowners had completed the county certification program, and every one of those homes survived the fire.
Beyond saving property, the ability to insure property — or have it insured at slightly lower rates — has been an important driver in the growth of certification efforts Lovgren said.
LeClair said the Eagle-Vail, Mountain Star and Cordillera neighborhoods have all earned certificates.
“Our goal is to get every community in the district recognized,” she said.
Those economic incentives seem to be doing something that’s more difficult for volunteer efforts or new building regulations.
During the 2012 drought, local fire agencies held several meetings for what’s called the “Ready, Set, Go!” program, which encourages homeowners to both protect their property and be ready to evacuate if a wildfire hits their neighborhoods.
During the drought, the meetings were well-attended. Attendance then fell off as the danger eased.
Now, LeClair said, fire officials are happy to evaluate a home or community and provide advice about wildfire protection. But persistence is the key.
From clearing brush to clearing gutters, “that all needs to be done well in advance of smoke in the air,” Lovgren said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.
Paul Cuthbertson, a lifelong local of Eagle and Summit counties, died while skiing up to the Polar Star Inn to meet some friends for a celebration of his 21st birthday on Friday night.