Park City and Summit County officials outline the path forward for responding to wildfire
Local and state officials from nearly a dozen agencies on Wednesday sat on a public panel covering this summer’s fire forecast, wildfire management and changes to Park City’s evacuation plans.
About 100 people attended the panel and a question-and-answer session, which was preceded by the screening of a portion of “Era of Megafires,” a documentary outlining the case for a shift in how agencies manage natural blazes. The event was held at the Jim Santy Auditorium in the Park City Library.
Panelist Mike McComb, Park City’s emergency manager, offered a preview of this summer’s picture for wildfires, saying that while the National Weather Service forecasts June and July to be wetter than average, August will see a drop in precipitation levels and an increased risk of fire. A strong snowpack and generous spring rains will help dampen the potential for a catastrophe, though panelists roundly agreed that Parkites should be prepared at all times. City Hall Planning Director Bruce Erickson counseled the audience not to forget a component of a fire evacuation kit that comes second only to food and water: paperwork.
“It’s your life insurance policy, get your home insurance policy, that’s what has got to come out first because everything else you don’t need to document,” Erickson said.
A number of audience members were concerned that Park City’s well-documented traffic problems could cost lives in the event of a blaze in residential areas like Old Town and Deer Valley. Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter said that the city is working with local tech firm Banjo on an initiative to model scenarios based on GPS data and update evacuation plans and busing routes in real time.
“This gives us the ability to evaluate those issues well before we evacuate; this gives us the ability to know before we push buses into a given area,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter also cited the recent consolidation of the Park City and Summit County emergency dispatch offices as an advantage in an emergency. It made possible the construction of a dedicated traffic center that allows authorities to micromanage traffic lights and spot problems on short notice.
However, some attendees noted anxiety at the prospect of evacuating from areas like Old Town, where streets are narrow, grades are steep and traffic lights nonexistent.
“I cannot drive down Park Avenue and get to ColeSport and Jans where there is a six-lane road,” one resident said.
The discussion’s broader topics included forest management, which was the subject of the documentary, as well as the related issue of landscaping and arranging properties in ways that mitigate fire risk and make response easier.
Human intervention via firefighting has caused forests to grow much more dense than in the past, and residential landscaping is often done without attention paid to the local ecology and physical fire risk.
State officials said more controlled burns of forests are on the horizon in order to mitigate the density of low-lying, flammable foliage that 20th century fire suppression efforts have enabled in the Mountain West. Before wildland firefighting techniques were implemented at a large scale, the ebb and flow of natural wildfires gave Western forests a patchier landscape dominated by tall trees that could withstand multiple fires.
As for residents, campaigns in places like Utah and Colorado to raise awareness of the concept of defensible space have ramped up in recent years, and fire officials at the panel continued to reiterate its importance in Park City. A diameter of least 100 feet of defensible space is recommended for Park City homes, which is achieved by finding ways to reduce the ability of fire to climb from the ground up to trees and roofs, like trimming foliage and spacing it out.
Erickson said that the city plans to make its own effort to encourage defensible space.
“Old Town and the way the vegetation has grown into that area and sort of the laissez-faire attitude some people have taken to the vegetation have created some significant fire risks,” Erickson said. “There’s a number of things that we need to take care of over the next couple of years and the Treasure Hill acquisition will expedite that.”
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Parkites see traffic and transportation as Park City’s biggest challenge over the next five to 10 years, a City Hall-hired firm that is leading the efforts to craft a community vision has found as part of its research. And they also see transportation solutions as one of the two top opportunities, alongside strategic development, during the same period, the research found.