A DC-10 air tanker drops fire suppressant during last August’s Rockport Fire. Such tankers are provided by the state. Under a new proposal, the state
A DC-10 air tanker drops fire suppressant during last August's Rockport Fire. Such tankers are provided by the state. Under a new proposal, the state could cover 100 percent of fire suppression costs while counties would focus on fire prevention efforts. (Park Record file photo)

Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer told county leaders on Wednesday that this year's wildfire season outlook is "normal." Of course, he added, last year was predicted to be normal as well, and the Rockport Fire broke out.

"We still have the potential for a significant incident, but we're not looking at having all the restrictions we've had in past years," Boyer said.

Late July and into August is when Summit County will most likely see its wildfire risk rise notably, Boyer said. But, there may be a key change could soon come in how wildfire suppression is paid for. There is movement to have 100 percent of the costs of fire suppression covered by the state.

Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said states, counties and cities are still early in the process of discussing this major change, but the fundamental concept is to approach wildfires in a more collaborative fashion.

"Why should we have counties pay for wildfire suppression when we could have them free up money for prevention and mitigation?" Curry said.

Utah Sen. Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City), who is helping to lead the state effort, said Gov. Gary Herbert has put six regional task forces together throughout the state to discuss potential fire mitigation projects. Currently, most Utah counties pay into a state fire suppression insurance fund and the state matches counties' payments.


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Under a potential change, Vickers said the state would do away with the insurance fund and states would take over all of the suppression costs for wildfires. In return, cities and counties would be required to use the money they would have given to the fund for fire mitigation and defensible space projects. Additionally, cities and counties would need to implement stricter ordinances for areas that are within the Wildland Urban Interface Zone.

"With this new policy, we'll reduce the money we'll have to spend on wildfires," Vickers said. "The primary thing is that [cities and counties] need to make sure the ordinances are in place and are met."

The state would also allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars for fire prevention training. Right now, Vickers said the state spends $2 million per year on mitigation efforts and he would like that to stay around that amount. Any change in this policy will require legislative action, most likely in piecemeal fashion through five to six different bills.

County reaction

At Wednesday's meeting, the County Council weighed in on the potential changes. Council member Dave Ure said he is "not really in favor" of the changes but is willing to hear more of Sen. Vickers' idea.

"It would be to the benefit of Summit County to save us money, but some counties won't live up to their responsibilities," Ure said.

Council member Claudia McMullin floated the idea of creating an ordinance that would require all county residents in the Wildland Urban Interface Zone to create defensible space around their homes, both to protect their own properties and the lives of firefighters during a potential wildfire.

Council Chair Chris Robinson said there have been incentives to create defensible space, but McMullin maintained that incentives "haven't worked" and that not enough residents have heeded the importance of defensible space, despite the fact that Boyer has worked tirelessly to educate residents.

Ure said the county should focus on harvesting fuels on both the conservation easements it owns and on National Forest lands, citing the high wildfire hazards that overgrowth poses.

A parcel of land in Kamas at the corner of Lambert Lane and State Road 32, Ure said, is 60 percent open space but has a vast amount of grass that hasn't been harvested in three to four years. A residence is near this open space, he said, and has good defensible space, but he said that wouldn't matter if a fire started on the grass.

"I don't think that defensible space is good enough. If one little spark came up somewhere there, that 60 acres would be engulfed in less than five minutes," Ure said.

Summit County Manager Bob Jasper said the county is working toward a partnership that "maximizes the talents and skills" among all the state, county and city entities and that the "big fuels that will burn" in the county are in the National Forest.

Ure stressed that something must be done with those fuels that have not been harvested in many years.

"There has to be a way to harvest [these fuels] without doing damage to the land and natural resources," Ure said.