Vail and wildfire risk to homes

Many trees have been removed from this setting in West Vail since this photo was taken in 2007, but there’s enough wood in surrounding forests to concern local fire officials. Photo/Allen Best

Many trees have been removed from this setting in West Vail since this photo was taken in 2007, but there’s enough wood in surrounding forests to concern local fire officials. Photo/Allen Best

Vail grapples with threat of wildfire

New mapping identifies  42% of  homes at high risk

VAIL, Colo. – If potential for fire was always theoretically evident in Vail, first the bark beetle epidemic and then the fires along Colorado’s Front Range have made that potential less abstract.

A map devised by Mark Miller, the fire chief in Vail, aims to make the potential even less abstract. For some homeowners, it might be alarming. Using risk factors that align with those used by insurance evaluators, the mapping he completed this year shows that 42 percent of homes are at “high risk” for damage from wildfires.

“My worst nightmare is that I have the people of Vail say, “You should have told us—you should have told us that our homes were at high risk,” said Miller in an interview with MTN.

“We have tried to do that rather adamantly over the last few years. We are saying that we live in the wildland-urban interface, and when living in the WUI there are associated risks and you need to understand those risks.”

That, he says, is the purpose of the map.

See Vail’s  interactive wildfire risk map: http://maps.vailgov.com/wildfirerisk/

Fire is rare in high mountain ecosystems and greatly dependent upon drought. For the lodgepole pine forests that surround Vail, the fire interval is at least 120 years, maybe longer. Higher up, toward timberline, Engelmann and spruce forests can go 400 years between fires. In comparison, white settlers didn’t arrive to stake out homesteads at Vail until about 130 years ago.

The pace of fires in Colorado has been quickening for several decades. Then came the drought of 2002, which made aging lodgepole more vulnerable to bark beetles. Whole hillsides turned rust-brown and, after the needles had fallen off, gray, a stark reminder of what had always existed: potential for fire.

Further emphasizing the vulnerability of ski towns have been the large forest fires along the Front Range, spiked in 2012 by fires in and near Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, and then again in 2013 by a fire near Colorado Springs, with hundreds of homes lost each time and several fatalities.

This is a familiar story in California’s coastal ranges, but it’s new to Colorado.

In a white paper that he posted in June, Miller rhetorically asked whether fires as disastrous as those in Colorado Springs or at Fort Collins could happen in Vail or surrounding areas.

“Absolutely,” he answered.

Defining high risk

Vail began taking action in 2006. It banned flammable shake-shingles on new and replacement roofs. It provided incentives to homeowners along the forest edge to remove trees.

In a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, it cleared large swatches of land on the town’s periphery, effectively creating a moat. Some 1,400 trees have now been removed. The goal is to preclude crown fires, in which fire spreads from tree to tree at their tops. They are considered far more dangerous than ground fires.

Another 500 to 1,000 acres of land are being targeted for fuels reduction.

Miller had suggested to the Vail Town Council that the town order that all the 694 remaining shake-shingle roofs be replaced by 2020, but council members rejected the idea as prohibitively expensive to homeowners.

The map, however, came out of a discussion last summer with the town council. In devising the map, Miller came up with his own criteria for what constituted high risk. Shake shingles is one, of course, but so is proximity to a fire station, ISO rating, defensible space and so on. He also compared his approach with six insurance companies, such as All State and American Family. Their approaches differed, but not in major ways, he says

One sticking point with some residents was whether the map would cause their insurance rates to rise. The insurance agents assured Miller that they would not; they have their own calculations.

“Our sole purpose in this thing was to educate people,” he says.

Still relatively new, the map has been noted by others involved in the wildfire issue in Colorado. It may be the first of its kind in that it allows property owners to zero in on their own property, to understand the risk. From the state government have come broad strokes of encouragement about this innovation.

The dissent has come at home. The Vail Homeowners Association newsletter in December concurred that “it is only a matter of time before a serious wildfire gets loose in the valley,” but fretted that the town seems to be shifting its policy from creating a defensible perimeter around the community to putting the onus on owners of residential property. The newsletter also warned that the wildlife triage plan, as it has been called, “may also become a rationale to prematurely abandon the protection and defense of entire neighborhoods that are under threat from a wildfire.”

The newsletter also fussed about the lack of a “clearly defined wildfire response agreement” between Vail, Eagle County and the U.S. Forest Service, and asserted that the lack of clearly defined agreements had partly been the cause of inadequate responses, which then resulted in “instances of unnecessary loss of life and property in some of the recent major Colorado wildfires.”

In his white paper, Miller suggested that the best planning can only go so far. “Wildfire can be a colossal and largely unpredictable force of nature no matter how well we work to suppress or prevent a disastrous incident,” he wrote in June. “As we have witnessed, often nature wins, and regardless of our efforts, we may fail in preventing a disastrous wildfire.”

Dave Neely, the local Forest Service ranger, said much the same thing in an appearance in Vail.  “You can never fully eliminate fire danger. But we’re much better off than we were even five years ago.”

This story was comes from the Dec. 23, 2013, issue of Mountain Town News. For a free sample copy of Mountain Town News, please  call 303.463.8630.

And in Jackson Hole

Forest Service dunning fire-starter for damages

JACKSON, Wyo. – In late summer last year, 650 people in Jackson were packing their bags, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. A fire to the east of town, in an area called Horsethief Canyon, threatened to spread across Snow King Mountain, the in-town ski area, and into Jackson.

It didn’t, and after 10 days the 3,373-acre blaze was extinguished. But by then $9 million had been spent, most of it by federal firefighters.

Right now, the public is left picking up the tab. The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that the U.S. Forest Service recently delivered a “letter of demand” to a 76-year-old man whose actions were the source of the fire. Investigators said he had been burning trash in a rusted-out barrel in a rural subdivision, and the fire got away.

 

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