Prepared by Paul Cada, wildland program manager for Vail Fire and Emergency Services
Wildfire has been on the mind of many in the community recently. The early, unseasonably warm and dry weather and Sylvan Fire which started June 20 had many fearing that 2021 was going to be a worse fire year than 2020.
In July, Mother Nature blessed us with abundant rain from several strong monsoonal moisture surges. We have not seen these types of monsoonal weather patterns in several years.
Unfortunately, this moisture became a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the rain significantly reduced the wildfire danger throughout Eagle County. On the other, it created significant flooding issues in the burn scars from last year including the prolonged closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon.
Many have asked if all this rain means that we will not have significant wildfires this year. The simple answer is: We don’t know. Some of the factors that led to the early fires, namely long-term significant drought, are still a factor and the abundant rain has led to some amazing wildflowers and tall grass leading to potential fire concerns as the plants go dormant for the year.
Much of the rest of this year will depend on whether we continue to get periodic moisture and whether we are graced with early snow. While there are many unknown variables, I am certain that wildfires, even small ones, will affect our community.
The good news is that we can do something about the wildfire situation. In May, Vail recognized Wildfire Preparedness Month with the Vail Wildfire Campaign. During this time, we asked community members to take five simple steps to prepare for wildfire, including signing up for emergency alerts, providing critical information through the Community Connect online portal, making a family evacuation plan, scheduling a site visit with our wildfire crew and cleaning up around your yard.
As always, our community went above and beyond. During the month of May, nearly 100 people signed up for EC Alerts and many updated their accounts, 86 people registered with Community Connect and we chipped the equivalent weight of six African elephants worth, or nearly 30 tons, of material from yards throughout the community.
All of these actions that our community members have taken to prepare for wildfire puts us one step closer to successful outcomes when the inevitable wildfire threatens our community.
Last month I had the opportunity to travel to Oregon to join nearly 2,000 other firefighters to help contain the Bootleg Fire. While not yet fully contained, that fire has burned over 400,000 acres of forest, shrub and grasslands and directly impacted several communities along its perimeter.
To give some perspective, that fire is the size of last summer’s Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires combined. Smoke from that fire, as well as many others burning in the northwestern region of the U.S, have blanketed the valley in often heavy smoke for much of this summer.
Fifteen years ago, a fire of this size would have been inconceivable, and many would shrug off the idea as impossible. Today, unfortunately a fire of that size is becoming a yearly occurrence. Our communities, forests and environment are changing and so too, must we. While Vail has yet to experience the direct impacts of substantial fire, it is only a matter of time.
I applaud the many community members that joined us during the Wildfire Preparedness Month activities in May and would encourage you to talk with your neighbors about the steps you have taken to be prepared. Wildfires can occur anytime snow does not cover the ground and 2020 showed us the potential for late summer and early fall fires in the High Country. Together, Vail can be Wildfire Ready.