Up in smoke
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April 21, 2017
On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, a house near mine burned to the ground. I was sitting on the porch with some visiting family members, enjoying the sunny day, when we noticed a little plume of smoke.
That's not unusual in my area. People gather the winter's accumulation of broken tree limbs and burn them in their yards. Maybe not something you would do at Jeremy Ranch, but that's as common as mowing the lawn in my neck of the woods. So nobody thought anything about it.
A minute later I got a call from a cousin in Kamas who had heard through a remarkably efficient rumor mill that the fire department was on its way to the neighborhood. She wanted to know if everything was OK here. It seemed fine, but between the time it took to put the phone down and go back outside, the little plume of smoke was a black cloud filling the sky. Somebody closer to the house had called the fire in, and the fire department was on the way. The smoke was visible from as a far away as Kamas.
Engines came from Woodland, Kamas and Oakley. They made a quick attempt to put it out, but had to back off and just keep it from spreading. The house was reduced to a pile of coals in about 45 minutes. The garage next to it was saved, and in a neighborhood of dense forest, they were able to keep it from spreading. That's really about all we can ask under the circumstances. The outcome may have been entirely different in August.
The fire was about a mile from my house, which counts as almost next door. The house was about 60 years old, and owned by the same family for all of that time. It was a vacation cabin, and fortunately wasn’t occupied when it caught fire. Nobody was hurt; just generations of memories gone.
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The house was across the river, putting it in Wasatch County. The distances involved make it impossible for Wasatch to make a meaningful response, so the initial response was from Summit County. Wasatch took over and managed the clean-up.
For years, that jurisdictional hand-off has been clunky at best. This time, it appears that the two counties' dispatch centers have it figured out, and it went smoothly. I don't think it would have been possible for the fire trucks to get here any quicker than they did.
There are no fire hydrants in the area. Installing hydrants would be a huge expense for the neighborhood water company. But the hydrants alone won't accomplish anything without a big storage tank on the system. The costs quickly become prohibitive, and everybody who owns a house here understands that risk. New construction has sprinklers, which probably would have saved this one.
The fire was about a mile from my house, which counts as almost next door. The house was about 60 years old, and owned by the same family for all of that time. It was a vacation cabin, and fortunately wasn't occupied when it caught fire. Nobody was hurt; just generations of memories gone.
This was the third time in my life that I've been the one to call a neighbor to report that their house had burned down. That's not an easy call to make. The fire department has their hands full with the fire, so they don't make the call. That falls to the sheriff's office, except that figuring out who owns the house isn't always easy. To the extent there are addresses out here, and they are sketchy, the house number was burned with the house. There isn't always a house next door for reference.
County Dispatch gets it all, from life-threatening situations to run-amok cows, and they have a protocol for everything. It's amazing what they can do, and how quickly they are able to do it. There are binders with cattle brands, and which brand goes on which forest-grazing allotment. They have lists of who to call when a Hereford bull with green ear tags is walking down the middle of the highway. They have an enormous amount of very detailed, neighborhood-specific information.
The dispatchers also know who to call for all the stuff that isn't written down. We still give people directions referring to dead people and torn-down landmarks. Nobody in dispatch is old enough to remember Kamp Kill Kare. It's been gone for 40 years or so, but for locals, it is still a point of reference.
"Half a mile east of Herm's old place," is a perfectly good address here, despite the fact that Herm has been dead for 20 years and moved out of the house several years before that. The dispatchers struggle with information of that quality, but always have a work-around. So when it was time to sort out who owned the pile of ashes, the Wasatch County sheriff's office called me.
By the time the sheriff's office called me, I had already called the owner. Not easy news to break. There's not a gentle way of saying your house just burned down.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.