Wildfire preparedness a community effort
• About 80 percent of all wildfires are human-caused.
• The average size of a wildland fire has doubled since the 1990s, from 44 to 88 acres.
• The average number of homes burned in wildfire every year has tripled since 1990.
• The average wildland firefighter fatality rate has increased from nine per year in the 1970s to 19.3 in the 2000s.
Source: Vail Fire Department
VAIL — The fire danger in the Vail Valley is low right now, thanks to a wetter-than-normal spring and summer. But a firefighter’s job is, in large part, pondering what might happen, so officials in Vail are working to make the town a “fire adapted community,” and for that they need the public’s help.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak and wildland fire specialist Paul Cada talked to the Vail Town Council on Tuesday about ways to make the community better able to confront and survive wildfires.
While this summer seems to be fireproof, at least now, Novak said that a few weeks of dry weather, or late-falling autumn snows, could turn wildland grasses into easily-ignited tinder. That’s why firefighters are always wary of what could be.
While nothing big has hit the Vail area in a long time, wildfires are fairly common. Novak noted there was a small fire up Piney Road in 2014 that, while quickly controlled, had the potential to threaten structures in Vail under the wrong circumstances. Under those circumstances, fires can spread remarkably quickly.
Novak most recently lived in the northern California mountains, and he told council members that in the fall of 2014, a wildfire in that area spread 30 miles in one day.
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That type of fire rarely hits the Rockies, but Cada said the forest type around Vail can lend itself to a “crown” fire, in which flames rapidly move through treetops. Those fires usually only hit forests like the one surrounding Vail every 100 to 450 years. It’s been more than a century since the last giant fire scorched the Vail area, but when such a fire might hit depends on a combination of conditions.
“It could be decades, or it could be next year,” Cada said.
With that uncertainty, the best thing people can do is be prepared, Cada said.
That’s why Vail fire officials are working to make the town a “fire adapted community,” in which both the public and private sectors are prepared for what might happen.
Individual homeowners can protect their property when they build — by using slate or asphalt shingles, installing metal storm gutters instead of plastic and using fine, ember-resistant screens on attic vents. When a home is lived in, residents need to be aware of everything from vegetation around a home to outdoor storage of toys, tools and other items.
Fire officials for years have talked about “defensible space” around homes — clearing brush and keeping trees some distance from structures. Novak said those concepts work.
“We can almost always trace why a house burned or didn’t to construction materials and defensible space,” he said. But, Novak added, “Defensible space doesn’t mean we can’t have trees — we can still have nice vegetation.”
Still, defending homes requires homeowners to do the work. While the Vail Fire Department provides free evaluations, Novak said only four homeowners have asked for them.
“We’d like to do defensible space evaluations of town-owned properties — we think there’s an opportunity there to take a leadership role,” he said.
Even when a town or individual homeowner does fire-prevention work, that job is never done. The town hires a wildland fire crew every summer and puts it to work clearing timber and brush in what’s called the “wildland/urban interface,” the zone between forests and populated areas.
Acknowledging that fire prevention and mitigation work involves all parts of a community, council members had some suggestions for possible town action.
Council members talked about some inconsistencies between town requirements. Mayor Andy Daly said he’s recently been told to take out a pair of evergreen trees the Vail Design Review Board required him to plant at his home when it was built years ago.
There’s also the lingering question of shake-shingle roofs. Those roofs are fire-prone, but roofing jobs are expensive. Daly said the town should be doing more officially and working to educate year-round residents and second-home owners.
Like everything else, that’s a matter of constant effort, no matter the weather.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com or @scottnmiller.