Risk of wildfires looms over Summit County
It doesn’t matter where residents live in the county. They are always in danger of being involved in a wildfire. But, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to protect their home, as well as their neighbors’ home, against the risk, according to Mike Owens, Park City Fire District’s fire marshal.
“We all sit here and say, ‘It won’t happen to me’ or ‘I feel bad for our neighbors,” Owens said. “While Summit Park is the poster child because it is dense and there are a lot of trees up there. Any neighborhood is at risk. That’s why we live here because we like to live within our forests. But, by doing so, we take the risk of that upon ourselves.”
Owens’s comments were part of a broader discussion on Thursday, hosted by the Project for Deeper Understanding. The forum, titled The Era of Mega-fires: Is Summit County Next?, explored the county’s susceptibility to a devastating wildland fire. The discussion touched on various wildland fire-related topics, such as homeowner responsibility and the importance of forest management. Nearly 60 people attended the event at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, including Summit County Council Chair Kim Carson.
The other panelists were: Darren McAvoy, extension assistant professor of Wildland Resources at the Utah State University; John Blazzard, of Blazzard Lumber in Kamas; Daniel Jauregui, district ranger for the Heber-Kamas District of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest; Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer; Summit County Emergency Manager Chris Crowley; and Ryan Torcicollo, owner of a local tree service company. County Council member Glenn Wright served as the moderator for the event.
Wright suggested the amount of snowfall that was received over the winter could lead to the soil and vegetation drying out sooner than expected.
“It seems like the fire season has expanded 40 to 80 days in the West,” he said. “While our fire season isn’t as long as the rest of the West, we do have the real possibility of it affecting us in June, July and August.”
Summit County’s fire season typically lasts from June through October and peaks in August, with the lower elevations typically seeing the most wildfires. Fire officials receive fire season predictions year round, but they really begin to paint a clearer picture of the situation for the upcoming season around this time of the year.
The discussion was divided into two parts, with the first half focusing on the Wildland Urban Interface, which identifies areas that are more prone to blazes. Some of the biggest causes of wildland fires are fireworks, lightning strikes, out-of-control agricultural burns and sparks from dragging chains.
As the county’s emergency manager, Crowley said he works with local agencies to ensure additional resources can be brought in if there is a large fire. But, like Owens, he emphasized personal responsibility among community members.
“We all have to mitigate against fires,” he said. “It is your responsibility to protect your community, your family and your home by taking steps to make sure you reduce those hazardous in and around your home.”
The panelists highlighted the local programs that are available to homeowners to help reduce those hazards, such as Park City Fire District and Summit County’s chipping program. Both programs help residents create a defensible space around their homes by disposing of branches, logs and small trees.
The second half of the discussion centered on the health of the forest and how that can impact the spread of a wildfire. When asked what the state of the forest is, Blazzard replied: dead.
“From my perspective, we used to have seven or eight saw mills in Kamas and now we only have one left,” he said.
Jauregui said the biggest challenge facing the Forest Service is the removal of dead trees. He said a fire could wipe out all of the dead vegetation and no new trees would grow back in their place.
“We are struck in a situation where we need to come out and look at it from a different perspective. It’s a big issue and it’s a big problem that is affecting the whole district — 500,000 acres,” he said. “I don’t have people coming into my office asking why we are cutting down trees. They are asking why are you not cutting down (dead) trees.”
Fire officials discussed how prescribed burns and cutting down trees actually improves the forest’s health, and can help reduce the spread of larger fires. But, one of the hurdles officials face in Utah is the quality of the air dictating when burning can be done.
Throughout the discussion, management of the forests’ health was viewed as a long-term solution, while panelists continued to highlight the role homeowners play in preventing the spread of a devastating wildfire.
“It’s an important issue that we have to face in Summit County,” Wright said. “My attention has really been raised in terms of how a fire could devastate a community and the area around us.”
Meredith Reed was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Summit County Democratic Party and said she sees an opportunity to ride the so-called blue wave that saw a Democratic surge nationally and within the state.