Vail foils future forest fires |

Vail foils future forest fires

Edward Stoner
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Tyler Vrbas, a member of Vail's wildland fire crew, cuts down a pine-beetle infested tree in West Vail. (Kristin Anderson/Vail Daily)

VAIL, Colo. ” High up a hillside near Vail’s Matternhorn neighborhood, Tom Talbot stood among baby aspen trees. He was quite excited to see them.

“These are two seasons,” said Talbot, wildland fire coordinator for the Vail Fire Department. “You see how they’ve come up? Farther up the hill, a few of them have come up even taller. This is what we’re after, the regeneration. That was the goal. And it’s happened.”

Two years ago, he and other firefighters were cutting down hundreds of aspen trees there. The goal was to allow some of the hillside’s aspen stand to regrow, preventing them from falling to the ground, where they could be fuel for wildfire.

“Aspen, when it’s alive, is a wonderful ‘fuel break’ because it has so much water in it,” Talbot said. “When it’s dead, as we all know, in the fireplace, boy, does it burn hot. And fast.”

Aspen stands can act as walls that stop lodgepole-pine fires from spreading.

And more lodgepole pines in Vail are dying. As trees become redder around the area, the risk of catastrophic wildfire has increased, local fire officials say.

The mountain pine-beetle epidemic has killed huge numbers of lodgepole pines in Vail’s forests. The Forest Service expects up to 90 percent of mature lodgepole pines to die in areas around Vail.

With the specter of a dead forest looming, the town of Vail, the Forest Service and Eagle County have embarked on a multiyear effort to cut pines and aspen around Vail to reduce the risk to homes and the forest. That work continues this summer.

A big part of that has been creating “defensible space” around the town.

Across the valley on the North Trail, that’s just what Ray Dixon, Mike Butler and Tyler Vrbas were doing Wednesday. The men, part of Vail’s six-man wildfire hand crew, wore hardhats and long-sleeved shirts in the sun as they carried their chainsaws up the hill.

Forest Service workers already had piled trees into small teepees so they could be burned. The men were cutting a few trees that remained.

“There’s a lot of beetle kill out here,” Butler said as he stood watched for hikers on the North Trail.

“Face cut up the hill!” Vrbas yelled before his chainsaw buzzed into a dead tree.

“Back cut up the hill!” he yelled as he began another cut.

“Falling!” he said as the tree fell, slamming into the ground.

Vrbas is from Hot Sulphur Springs in Grand County, where he was a volunteer firefighter. There, the pine-beetle epidemic is even more severe.

“If you want to be a sawyer, that’s the place to be,” Vrbas said.

Along the skyline of the Gore Creek Valley, workers have carved a 200-foot-wide swath designed to prevent the spread of fire from the forest into the town, or vice versa.

“If the fire is going from the forest to the homes, [the fire] will drop to the ground,” said Eric Rebitzke, who is coordinating the Forest Service’s tree cutting this summer.

This summer, the work has continued above neighborhoods such as Intermountain, northwest Vail, Matterhorn, Sandstone and East Vail.

Forest Service workers are finishing up their cutting of 250 acres around Vail this summer. Piles of “slash” ” smaller branches ” will be burned, mostly in the next couple of years. Other logs will be left on the ground to control erosion. Others will be removed from the forest ” some by helicopter ” and sold to create biomass fuel.

The town will spend about $530,000 for the work this year, and Eagle County and the U.S. Forest Service will each chip in another $100,000 worth of work.