Will Vail Valley snowpack ease summer wildfire risk? | VailDaily.com

Will Vail Valley snowpack ease summer wildfire risk?

Snowpack is good, but it's only one factor in determining wildfire risk

The 2018 Lake Christine Fire near Basalt burned nearly 13,000 acres. Local fire officials are using lessons from that fire to help with both emergency response and future preparedness.
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Four facts

  • 12,566: Acres consumed by the 2018 Lake Christine fire near Basalt consumed nearly 13,000 acres.
  • The fire cost more than $18 million to fight.
  • You can call your local fire agency to have your home evaluated to improve its wildfire resistance.
  • April 1, snowpack in the Colorado River basin is 130 percent of the 30 year median, and 160 percent of the previous year.

EAGLE COUNTY — People who prepare for and fight wildfires are always at least a little nervous.

Dry seasons are easy to understand. But good snowpack years can also be a concern. Will the snow come off the hillsides too quickly, causing flooding? Will the grasses that sprout in May and June dry out if we have a few precipitation-free weeks?

There are always questions, and there’s always work to do, even in a season when Eagle County has received a good bit of moisture.

Part of the concern comes from perceptions. There’s a lot of snow in the higher elevations, but there’s a lot of Eagle County that’s also high desert. Those areas could burn, even now.

“I remember not too long ago when we had a winter storm warning and a red flag (fire) warning come on the same day,” Eagle River Fire Protection District Community Risk Manager and Public Information Officer Tracy LeClair said.

There’s also the fact that fire seasons are getting longer almost every year.

“In California, it’s more of a ‘fire year’ than a fire season,” Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation Manager Eric Lovgren said, adding that Colorado isn’t yet at that point.

Always preparing

Winter gives fire officials a chance to reflect on what went right and wrong in the previous season, and how to be better prepared for the season to come.

The big local news in 2018 was the Lake Christine fire near Basalt. That fire consumed nearly 13,000 acres, and took weeks to contain.

“We all learned a lot,” Lovgren said. The biggest lesson, perhaps, is “our firefighters are incredibly good at their jobs,” he added.

It would be better if firefighters didn’t have to risk their lives on big blazes, though.

The Eagle River Fire Protection District covers a diverse swath of territory, from the high alpine environment of Tennessee Pass to the high desert near Wolcott.

Communication is critical

LeClair said that means people at that agency are often paying attention to very different conditions at the same time. Local fire officials are now looking at ways to better communicate fire restrictions and other information.

Lovgren said those agencies are also looking at ways to better work together.

“We’re working toward response, fire adapted communities and resiliency,” Lovgren said.

Part of that work involves “de-siloing” what different agencies do.

“We’ll look beyond putting out the fire and sandbagging for floods,” Lovgren said.

Eagle River, like other local fire departments, is happy to send firefighters to talk to property owners about ways to mitigate fire risks around their homes.

Right now, though, this wildfire season looks like it could be quite a bit better than 2018.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, conditions so far are adding up to a “normal” or “below normal” wildfire season for much of the Rocky Mountains.

That would be a much-needed break after 2018.

On the other hand, conditions can change quickly. Lovgren said that’s why plans need to be in place, for this year and years to come.

“We work under the premise of not if, but when,” Lovgren said of wildfires. “That’s why we work on these things.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

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