Eagle County ‘as prepared as ever’ for wildfires
VAIL — A wet spring and average winter means local ground fuels — the grasses and weeds that sit on the forest floor — have grown high and are ready to burn.
Colorado wildfires burning along the Front Range have sparked concerns about local fire danger, especially as hot weather and high winds persist this week in many parts of the Western Slope.
“Everybody remains on high alert regardless of recent rains and average snowpack,” said Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation manager.
Lovgren spent the day Wednesday with homeowners who will be creating so-called defensible spaces — areas where trees are cut in order to separate ignitable forest fuels from homes — around their properties, paid for with personal, homeowner’s association and state forest service funds.
When Lovgren thinks about the county’s wildfire preparedness as a whole, he’s confident everything has been or is being done.
“We’re very prepared,” Lovgren said. “We’re prepared to throw everything at the smaller fires to keep them that way.”
What Lovgren is referring to is the countywide task force, which is made up of all of the local fire agencies. There’s an agreement between them to send resources to wildland fires regardless of where the fires begin.
“We throw everything at it right away and keep it small, because once it gets big, it changes everything,” Lovgren said.
Town of Vail fire chief Mark Miller said the task force goes beyond the previous arrangement between agencies, which was more of a mutual aid agreement. The task force is a legitimate promise, not just a hand shake.
“We really made the decision if we do get anything, the only things that may give us a chance at stopping it is to hit it with everything we’ve got as fast as we can,” Miller said.
Once fires spread beyond the control of local emergency response, the agencies then have to rely on resources from neighboring counties, the state and the federal government. But with such high fire dangers persisting across much of the state and especially the western United States, those resources could be limited.
Miller said there are limited air tankers available, and if a fire on the Front Range takes priority over a wildland fire in Eagle County, the tankers may or may not make it here. The level of priority is determined by the number of homes and lives that are threatened, Miller said, adding that the incident commanders of the fires typically make that call.
Those limited resources are why local agencies are “just a little more vigilant,” Miller said.
“We’re sort of on edge a little bit more because of the potential,” Miller said. “It could be as simple as somebody mowing their lawn and hitting a rock that sparks and creates a fire.”
That’s what often concerns fire officials most — the simplicity. Someone who flicks a cigarette out the window could cause a catastrophe just as easily as someone who leaves a campfire burning outside of a fire pit.
Eagle County and Garfield County do not have any current fire restrictions, but that doesn’t mean people can just play with fire.
Eagle River Fire Protection District firefighter Jason Brown, the district’s wildland training and certifications manager, said people need to be smart regardless of the fire restrictions in place. Smart fire behavior includes keeping camp fires in rings or at approved sites, not throwing cigarette butts outside and not playing with fireworks or matches.
Being ready for the wildfire season is something that doesn’t just fall onto the shoulders of local fire agencies, though. Citizens have to prepare, too, especially when wildfires can start and spread so quickly.
“We’re as ready as anybody,” Lovgren said. “But fire being what it is — no two fires are the same — there’s certainly a possibility to get an incident that overwhelms local resources.”
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