Mountain News: Snowmobilers died high-marking 

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What changed perceptions was 2002, says Smith. Among others elsewhere in the West, three major fires occurred that summer in Colorado: near Durango, again at Glenwood Springs, and biggest of all, the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver.

"The whole Eagle River Valley was shrouded in smoke for large parts of the summer, and when people are breathing smoke all the time, they get worried - because they don't know where the smoke is coming from," says Smith. "We were getting phone calls all the time."

After that big summer, Congress passed the Healthy Forests Initiative, which encourages - but does not mandate - wildfire protection planning. Even so, Eagle County and other county and town governments began planning for potential fires.

In Eagle County's case, the new regulations mandated defensible space planning in rural subdivisions.

Ironically, Hurricane Katrina pushed the planning. A directive from the Federal Emergency Management Administration offered grants, but insisted that to be eligible communities had to do evacuation planning. In mountain valleys, wildfires - not hurricanes - are the major risk.

Many mountain jurisdictions now have evacuation plans in place, among them Grand Lake, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Vail.

One of Smith's major projects this year is to produce an evacuation plan for Eby Creek Mesa. Several years ago, even after the Storm King deaths in 1994 and then the summer of smoke in 2002, residents hotly resisted plans to thin trees in and around the subdivision. They were, however, reminded that their house catching fire then endangered houses of their neighbours.

If a fire does occur, states Smith, residents can only be asked to leave. "I have found nothing in the Colorado statutes that says we can force people to evacuate," he says.

However, beetle-killed forests have served as a reminder of vulnerabilities that always existed. There is, says Smith, a greater acceptance for the need to thin and remove trees. Beaver Creek, which originally opposed a wildfire protection plan, now brags about the plan in its marketing.

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