Eagle County wildfire conditions ‘good and bad’ | PostIndependent.com

Eagle County wildfire conditions ‘good and bad’

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Every part of the world has the potential for some form of natural disasters, and in Eagle County, the impending threat with the largest scale consequences is the threat of wildfire.

Every year, as the snow melts, our local U.S. Forest Service and members of local fire departments and local governments assess the upcoming fire season. As of now, that assessment is fairly uncertain.

“Due to all the moisture we’ve had, it’s sort of good and bad,” said Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller.

Good because there’s moisture, but bad because that moisture means a lot of the ground fuels such as grass and brush is growing with ease.

The Vail Fire Department is continuing its work to create more defensible space – gaps that essentially separate the forest from infrastructure and people – this summer. The town has a four-person wildfire crew that is working on 16 project areas this season to help reduce wildfire danger.

Last year, crews in Vail cut about 1,175 trees as part of its defensible space projects.

Miller said that while he feels Vail is at about 75 percent of where it needs to be with defensible space, each year there seems to be more problems that arise.

“Each year we accomplish a bit more, but then we also get more dead trees and other issues,” Miller said. “It’s one of those ongoing projects. … It’s hard to stay ahead of it, but I’m feeling good about what we’ve done and the space we’ve created.”

The fire season forecast for this part of Colorado is calling for equal chances of either hotter and dryer than normal weather or wetter than normal weather.

Dave Neely, the district ranger for the Eagle/Holy Cross District of the White River National Forest, said there’s isn’t a clear indication for the Western Slope that there will be anything other than a normal fire season this year.

Normal has typically meant fairly quiet in recent years, but there are some other variables that will still have to play out before forecasters can be more certain.

Variables like the monsoon season, which generally begins around the second week of July, will help determine what this year’s fire season looks like.

Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation manager, said if the monsoon comes and things stay relatively wet, it should be a quiet year.

But with the grasses and low-growing fuels for fires really taking off because of the wet spring, potential dangers are definitely looming.

“The monsoon season is the big deciding factor,” Lovgren said.

Miller said the fire season could end up being later this year.

“It could be more of a September problem for us,” Miller said. “There are so many variables, all environmentally driven.”

Neely said the Forest Service feels pretty good about the fuels mitigation work that has been done and local defensible space.

There’s more work to be done this year, though, in areas throughout the county near Minturn, Vail and Eagle. Neely said there’s about seven miles alone of Red Sandstone Road in Vail that are lined with dead or weak trees.

“We need to control the time and direction those trees come to the ground,” Neely said.

Neely is meeting with the Vail Town Council Tuesday night to go over that project and others.

Lovgren said a lot of training has been done county-wide to prepare for the fire season and there’s been an increase what’s called “pre-attack” planning, meaning maps, resources and other key information is heavily organized for fire response teams.

“From an operational standpoint, I think we’re as ready as we can be,” Lovgren said.

County projects this summer include more work on tree removal and defensible space on Bellyache Ridge, an Eby Creek area project north of Eagle, and projects in the Basalt area.

Neely said that fire suppression, the way the Forest Service has typically managed the local forests in the past, isn’t necessarily the answer anymore.

National fire policies are moving away from fire suppression as the only way to manage forest fires, he said.

“Fire is a natural part of these landscapes,” Neely said. “A hundred years of aggressive suppression hasn’t really worked for the ecosystem.”

Neely said the Forest Service intends to manage every fire, and in some cases that management means the fires will be allowed to do what they need to do to achieve some ecological benefits, meaning the fires won’t always be put out right away.

“It’s about using every available tool to achieve [safety and ecological] benefits,” Neely said.

And while defensible space does decrease the chances of having catastrophic loss, Miller said he doesn’t want people to feel a false sense of security because of that space.

“It does buy us some time,” Miller said. “The key with wildland fire is to get a quick response and quick, under control effort going.”


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