2012: a bad fire year for Summit County
December 29, 2012
Summit County experienced far more fires this year than usual, according to local officials.
"This year was by far worse, disastrously worse," Park City Fire District Chief Paul Hewitt said.
Hewitt blamed the heavy fire season on the lack of ksnowfall last winter.
"Normally, the snow falls and lays the grass horizontally down because of the heavy snow weight," he explained. "So for a couple months we don’t see these wildfires caused by things like sparks thrown by trucks passing. But last winter we had almost no moisture."
Prior to 2012, about 7 percent of fires grew larger than an acre. In 2012, 26 percent exceeded an acre.
That led the Summit County Council to call an emergency meeting last June to prohibit fireworks through the fire season.
"And it’s a terrible thing to have to do," Hewitt said. "I love fireworks. But we had to do it because we live in such a huge fire load."
This year, there were 112 fires in Summit County, double the number county usually experiences.
"We’ve been able to keep the majority of them small, which is the key," Summit County Public Works Director Kevin Callahan said. "Once you get over a few acres, the perimeter of the fire becomes harder to control. And depending on what the weather conditions are, things can really get away from you."
The county’s goal is to keep the fires small, and though the county experienced a large number of fires, the vast majority have been kept under an acre.
"But we had a couple pretty good sized ones. We had a 330-acre fire on the East Side of the county. And we had one in Wanship that was 61 acres," he said.
Lightning causes about 20 percent of the fires faced by the county, but the majority of wildfires are human-caused, Callahan said.
"For the most part it’s either campers who don’t do a good job keeping their campfires under control or ranchers who are burning off ditches," he explained. "Sometimes they are not paying attention and the wind comes up in the afternoon and it gets away from them, and we have to run out and put the fire out."
Summit County has an ordinance that allows the county to recover costs from those who cause fires either through negligence or by violating a county ordinance.
Robert Lund, whose son admitted to accidentally starting a small brush fire in July, recently agreed to pay the county $2,000 in $100 monthly installments.
"He’s been the first case that I’m aware of where we’ve actually been successful with cost recovery," Callahan said. "We haven’t wanted to be that aggressive with people who we didn’t think were doing something intentionally."
Staff will be discussing the cost recovery policy with the County Council in January for clarification on how the council would like them to carry out the policy.
"We’re not looking to be super aggressive with everybody and recover every dollar, but we’re trying to figure out what the threshold is," he said. "Do we have to fight the person for having been in violation of an ordinance? Or if we just have evidence they were negligent, is that sufficient for us to do cost recovery?"
Callahan added that as their budget gets tighter, it becomes more important to recover some of the costs.
This year, the county incurred $145,000 in firefighting costs, though the county will only be responsible for paying $40,000, because other fire agencies typically don’t bill the county unless they’ve fought a fire for two hours or more. Summit County usually budgets $25,000 to $30,000 for fire suppression.
"That’s to pay other fire agencies and for the replacement of hoses and equipment," Callahan clarified. "It was a tough year for us. But it was much tougher for Wasatch County. I’ve been told the total cost for them is over $1 million, which is pretty tough on them. I don’t think they have anything close to a budget to be ready for something like that."
Callahan said the 2012 fire season may be a precursor for next year.
"We do have these cycles of dry periods and wet periods," he said. "Even though we’ve had some snow this year, the long term predictions for this winter for the Intermountain West are not very strong. It doesn’t look like we’ll have a very heavy winter. What that means usually is your spring comes earlier, your ground dries out quicker and your fires start earlier. So we could be back to the situation we had this year where we’re starting to have fires earlier."