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Community-wide Wildfire Protection for Community-wide Hazards

One of the most vulnerable elements of any structure to wildfire is the first five feet of landscaping which surrounds the building.  This area acts as a natural trap for embers, accumulating them in dangerously close proximity to the building.  If this area contains flammable vegetation such a bushes, firewood, or flammable items, these embers may cause the ignition of the structure.  In areas of high density this one burning structure may rapidly spread to many causing a chain reaction of loss. 

Within this area recommended landscaping includes: 

  • Hardscaping such as on-grade patios, walkways, driveways, etc.
  • Non-combustible mulch such as pea gravel, cobble and stone 
  • Well maintained and irrigated lawn
  • Perennial flower beds
  • Perennial ground cover 

Trees and shrubs should not be planted (stem within five foot zone) within the Fire Free Five. Trees planted outside the five foot zone that hang over into the zone should be limbed up to a height of six feet or one-third the total height whichever is less and should be trimmed to leave at least a two foot gap between the nearest branch and the building.

The Fire Free Five also applies to material placed or stored within this area.  Combustible materials such as firewood, construction materials or other combustibles should not be stored within this zone.  Combustibles may be stored within this zone if they are enclosed in a manner to prevent the ignition from wildfire flames or embers.

Turning Education into Action

All buildings in Vail are highly encouraged to develop and maintain as proper Fire Free Five.  To aid property owners Vail Town Council has allocated funds to support community action.  The Fire Free Fire Community Assistance Program is intended to provide financial support to property owners who are increasing wildfire resiliency by creating a five foot non-combustible zone around their building.  All properties within the Town of Vail are eligible to participate in the program. 

Reimbursement - Fund your Fire Free Five

  • This program will reimburse property owner 75% of actual costs of materials and labor. Property owner must provide a minimum 25% cash match
  • Creation of Fire Free Five around outbuildings is an eligible expense but is not eligible for a separate reimbursement
  • Reimbursement limits are as follows:
    • Single Family Dwelling: $2,000
    • Duplex: $3,000
    • Multi-family Dwelling/complex, 1-20 units: $5,000
    • Multi-family Dwelling/complex, 21 units or more: $10,000
    • Commercial Structure: $5,000
  • Receipts must be submitted within 90 days of approval of the application

Property owners interested in participating in Fund your Fire Free Five should start by filling out and application or calling Paul Cada, Wildland Program Manager 970-477-3475.

Requirements of Eligible Properties

  • Located within the incorporated boundaries of the Town of Vail (TOV)
  • Each property is limited to a single reimbursement up to the specified limits based upon property type
  • Property must fully implement the fire free five around the entire building
  • Reimbursement is limited to property-owners or their legal representative; renters are not eligible to receive reimbursement. An HOA will be considered a property owner for the purpose of eligibility for common areas owned by the HOA. 

Free Community Workday Services Introduced by Vail Fire to Help Property Owners Create Defensible Space

Vail Fire and Emergency Services is excited to announce its newest outreach program to help community members reduce wildfire risk around their homes. The Vail Wildfire Community Workday program is designed to aid property owners with some of the hardest work needed to implement defensible space around the property. Through the Community Workday Program each property will be eligible for up to 30 minutes of free labor from Vail Fire to help build and maintain defensible space around the property. Department members will be available to help prune trees and shrubs, remove flammable vegetation and help drag the material to the curb for pickup. 

Vail Fire is planning four community workdays in 2023:

  • Crews will be in Intermountain, Matterhorn and Highland Meadows neighborhoods on July 8
  • The East Vail neighborhoods on July 16
  • The Katsos Ranch and Booth Creek neighborhoods on Aug. 5
  • The Chamonix, Buffehr Creek, Lions Ridge and Sandstone/Potato Patch neighborhoods on Aug. 13

Workdays will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on each of the days. Crews will be roving throughout each work area and are available to be flagged down for assistance. The work can also be pre-scheduled by calling the Vail Fire Chipping Hotline at 970-477-3509 or signing up here.

Avoiding the Growing Threat

Marshall, Camron Peak, East Troublesome, Grizzly Creek, Sylvan Lake, the list keeps growing as communities across Colorado continue to become painfully familiar with the hazards of our interactions with wildfire.  While wildfire is not a new natural hazard to Colorado or the western US, the impact that it is making on communities each year is growing at an exponential rate.  Studies released in 2021 show wildfire threat is growing across the western US, but of particular concern is a near tripling of fire activity in high elevation environments such as Vail.  This rapid acceleration of wildfire threat fundamentally changes the way we need to think about and prepare for inevitable wildfire in the Vail Valley.  Wildfire risk data compiled by national experts shows all of Vail with significant exposure to the risks of wildfire. Because of this shared risk throughout our community we must be bold and adopt effective strategies which address risk at a community wide scale.  Solutions must extend out of the forest and beyond single homes to entire neighborhoods, where all buildings have adequate defenses from wildfire. 

What Causes Structure Loss from Wildfire 

Much research has been done to answer the question of what causes structure loss from wildfire.  Beginning in the late 1990’s Dr. Jack Cohen of the US Forest Service conducted conclusive studies of the specific conditions and elements that make buildings vulnerable to wildfire.  The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety furthered this research with replicable lab tests and post fire analysis to build a deep body of knowledge.  

What the research concludes is that structure loss occurs from 3 different causes, direct flame contact, ignition by embers and structure to structure ignition.  While it may be easy to conclude that most structures are lost from direct flame contact the truth is that very few are actually lost this way. The most common cause of structure loss is from ignition by embers.  Like a campfire, wildfire generates a large volume of embers that can be lofted in excess of a mile ahead of a wildfire.  These embers accumulate on and near the building and if conditions are favorable can rapidly ignite the structure.  This ignition may occur well ahead of the main fire or hours to sometimes days after the main fire passes through an area. Fires such as the 2021 Marshall Fire, 2018 Camp Fire and 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire show a somewhat rare but extremely destructive pattern of structure-to-structure ignition.  In these cases, a single building or sometimes several buildings catch fire from either direct flame contact or embers.  The house once ignited emits large amounts of heat and large potent embers which can set off a chain reaction of structure loss as seen in the Marshall Fire.   The closer the structures are built together the higher this risk becomes. Following the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire the National Institute of Standards and

Technology (NIST) conducted an extensive study of loss and identified these key findings: 

  • WUI fire dynamics change rapidly and require special consideration. "For example, if your home is nestled deep within a neighborhood away from the leading edge of a fire, you might not be at risk early on," Maranghides said. "However, the danger to your home dramatically increases if a neighboring house, the surrounding landscape or a nearby vehicle catches on fire." 

  • WUI fires create "cascading ignitions." The intensity, spread and destructive power of a WUI fire increases rapidly as more and more structures are ignited. In the Waldo Canyon fire study, the researchers found that only 48 of the destroyed homes were ignited directly from the wildfire. Structure-to-structure spread from these early ignitions resulted in the cascading ignition of the other 296 destroyed homes.  

Due to the high density of building within our valley, Vail has an overall high risk of this type of structure-to-structure ignition.  As part of the 2020 adopted Vail Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) we assessed this risk based on proximity to other structures.  The results of this assessment can be found here