Park City officials warn of dry summer, and a ‘high risk’ of wildfires |

Park City officials warn of dry summer, and a ‘high risk’ of wildfires

Snowpack below average with possibility of persistent dry conditions

The snow at lower elevations in Park City is disappearing after a winter with limited precipitation. City Hall has early concerns about the wildfire season, indicating there is expected to be a high risk unless there is lots of precipitation in coming months. Tanzi Propst/Park Record

Park City emergency officials are preparing for the possibility of a dangerous wildfire season later in 2021 with snowfall to date well below what is expected in a typical winter, indicating that dry weather could persist for months.

City Hall staffers involved in planning for the wildfire season recently drafted a briefing for Mayor Andy Beerman and the Park City Council that warned of drier conditions in coming months. The briefing, citing Natural Resources Conservation Service data from January, notes a “high probability of a drier summer and fall in terms of regional water supply.”

The report is based on data from early March, but there has not been a significant change in the situation since then. City Hall said on Wednesday the amount of water contained in the snowpack at a measuring station in Thaynes Canyon was 77% of the 30-year median for that location, up just 7 percentage points after the storms that followed the drafting of the report.

Mike McComb, the emergency manager for Park City and one of the staffers listed as a co-author of the recent report to the elected officials, said long-range predictions call for temperatures to be above average in April with below-average precipitation expected. McComb said the runoff could occur quickly in the spring since the snowpack at higher elevations is lower than normal. There were spots in the Park City area at the lower elevations with little or no snow coverage at the beginning of April. High temperatures and clear conditions, meanwhile, were expected to continue into the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

“We will still need to exercise a lot of vigilance,” said Mike McComb, the emergency manager for Park City and one of the staffers listed as a co-author of the recent report to the elected officials.

If the weather remains warmer than typical and dry, the snow at the upper elevations of the Park City area could melt more quickly than would otherwise be expected. Under that scenario, McComb said, the risk of wildfires increases as the vegetation dries out early once the water from the melting snow disappears. He said “it is shaping up to be a pretty dry year.” The report to the elected officials addressed the topic as well.

“All told, the data indicate that absent substantial continued precipitation between now and this summer, conditions are likely to pose a high risk of wildfire throughout Summit County and surrounding areas,” the report says.

The concern about wildfires usually builds through the early summer after winters with low snowpacks. In some cases, the issue only becomes widely known in public circles once leaders begin debating fireworks bans or cancellations of fireworks displays in the weeks before Independence Day and then Pioneer Day.

A devastating wildfire has long been seen as one of the threats to Park City and certain locations in surrounding Summit County. There are numerous structures inside Park City that are surrounded by or close to heavily forested areas. The densely developed Old Town and much of Deer Valley are two of the prime examples.

There are concerns that a wildfire inside Park City could be especially devastating as the flames spread across the hillsides, engulfing structures and moving through the community.

“Under certain circumstances, a large wildfire in our area could deliver a severe economic blow to the City and private property. Wildfire is the primary natural hazard in the region, both in terms of potential severity and likelihood,” the report says.

There has never been a wildfire of that sort in Park City’s modern era, but the efforts at City Hall are meant to ensure the municipal government is prepared for one.

The report to the elected officials, meanwhile, outlines efforts at City Hall to draft a plan for community evacuations should a wildfire force people out of Park City. The report says the draft has been completed and involved cooperation among the municipal government, state agencies, Summit County departments, the Park City Fire District and the two mountain resorts.

The report says a tabletop evacuation exercise is planned in April, something that is intended to provide information about the successes and failures of the plan prior to it needing to be implemented in the event of an actual wildfire. What is described as a “full-scale exercise” could be scheduled in the fall. The community would be involved in that exercise in some fashion.

An evacuation plan, which the report says will be “designed to be scalable, flexible, and adaptable,” is expected to be added to City Hall’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.

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