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Exercise Prepares Responders For Big Wildfire

Vail Daily

The following article was published in the Vail Daily onWednesday May 23 2012. VVMC brought 12 representatives fromvarious areas of the hospital to the disaster drill to learn whattheir roles would be in case of a major wildfire.

On Tuesday Eagle River Fire Protection District firefighterswere knocking on homeowners' doors and handing out faux-evacuationfliers as part of an emergency simulation conducted across multipleemergency agencies in Eagle County.

They were participating in an exercise being conducted at theDonovan Pavilion to prepare for a potential major wildfire ineastern Eagle County. Firefighters police officers and officialsfrom the town of Vail the Salvation Army and the Red Cross meetquarterly to prepare for disaster situations but the topic Tuesdaywas wildfire because of the heightened risk this summer. For morethan four hours these agencies discussed options andstrategies.

"Why am I staying awake at night?" asked Forest Service FireManagement Officer Ross Wilmore rhetorically to the group. "Thekind of forest we have here only burns once every century. I thinkwe have reached that point now where the woods are ready toburn."

The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for EagleCounty during the simulation lasting until 9 p.m. Tuesday whichmeans that weather conditions are prime for the spread ofwildfires.

"Today is about realizing how fast a wildfire moves and how fastit literally gets out of hand and how you get some kind of controlover it" said Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller.

Detailed scenario
The scenario is built upon a plausible wildfire incident thatcould occur in Eagle County. In this hypothetical scenario it islate August and a fire breaks out after a pattern of unseasonablydry weather. Winds gust up to 45 mph to spread the blaze.

This scenario was not caused by a lightning strike but by humanerror. The simulated fire would begin in the early afternoon whenwhite smoke was spotted out of a garage where no one is home.

The mock wildfire then would move into the forest above thehouse and to the east in the grasses at the base of the slope.Even though the hills look green the risk of a wildfire remains.The Vail Valley forest is an old forest ridden with dead fallentrees from the pine beetle infestation. Because this dry seasonfollows an extremely wet season overgrown grasses which burnquickly have dried.

Within two hours embers would be carried away from the initialsite burning at 12 feet per minute towards condominiums along theLionsridge Loop and homes along Sandstone Drive. Generally theareas with the lowest fire danger are the areas closest to theEagle River and become more susceptible to fire farther away fromthe bank. This mock wildfire threatened the Potato Patch area.

'Easy to be complacent'
The challenge in these situations is how to notify citizens out inthe valley. Three and a half hours after the fire ignited citizensattending an art show and the farmers market began complaining ofirritated throats and stinging eyes. Guests at wedding ceremonybeing conducted at the top of Lionshead Gondola Eagles Nest wereasking if they need to evacuate. Among the logistical concerns inan emergency situation is public complacency in these situations -that residents will think officials are being overly cautious.

"Until you've experienced a fire it's pretty easy to becomplacent" Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said. "I've told people100 times to make a list of what to grab and where to go becauseif you think you'll be prepared-you're not."

Zemler possesses a unique insight into his hypotheticalsituation because for him it is not hypothetical. He lost a home inFourmile Fire that befell Boulder in 2010. He visits the home threeweekends a month and was in Vail when he received a Reverse 911message about the fire.