Over the course of 2013, dozens of fires raged across the American West, burning hundreds of thousands of acres and destroying scores of homes.
At about 1,300 acres, a late-June fire in Yarnell, Ariz., about 30 miles northwest of Phoenix, was by no means the largest, but it was the deadliest—not just of that year, but in more than two decades.
And many of the factors that contributed to the tragedy are inherent across the American West—especially across the Wasatch Front, in City Creek, Emigration and the Cottonwood canyons; in Federal Heights, Herriman and the Jordan River Corridor; and in plenty of other gorges, ravines, hillsides and overlooks that make the areas between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains such an enticingly natural place to live.
Utahns flock by the thousands to these places—many of which had little development just a few decades ago—to make homes for themselves and their families.
“People move up into these areas thinking about seclusion or getting up into nature,” Unified Fire Authority Captain Clint Mecham says, “but not thinking about fires.”
Vanessa Purdy first fell in love with the quiet town of Yarnell in the 1970s while taking a break from her studies at Arizona State University. She returned again in 1999 to purchase a vacation home and found herself spending increasing amounts of time there, drawn by the wildlife and the nature-out-my-backdoor experience offered in the sandy, boulder-strewn landscape.
“I love birds and wild animals, and it was just a bird watcher’s paradise,” Purdy says.
Before the summer 2013 disaster, Yarnell Hill had not seen a wildfire in that area in more than 66 years. The result was a heavy loading of grasses, brush and chaparral, within and around Yarnell, which were then dried through persistent drought.
On June 30, 2013, Purdy climbed a ladder to the top of one of the many granite boulders that lie just beyond an outcropping of scrubby brush on her two-acre property. From there, she had a 365-degree view of her community in Yarnell. A stone’s throw to the east, Purdy could see the familiar scene of her home—a green-roofed, ranch-style house nestled among the scattered boulders and tall brush of central Arizona.
But something else was drawing her attention: a column of dark smoke rising to the northwest. Its origin was the Yarnell Hill Fire, which had been burning on and off for nearly two days.
A base of dry grasses had allowed the flames to climb into larger vegetation above in a ladder effect, growing the fire with the assistance of intensifying winds from a half-acre on Friday afternoon to more than 7,000 acres by Sunday evening.
At the recommendation of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department, Purdy had already begun to gather a number of important documents and belongings. But noting the northeast advance of the fire, her biggest concerns on that morning were directed toward her neighbors to the north.
“It looked like the people in Peeples Valley, to the north of us, were the most at risk. It looked like they were just going to be decimated,” Purdy says. “I was so concerned for my friends.”
The two communities are separated by five miles of rolling hills, but “it’s really like we are just one big community,” Purdy says.
As Purdy fretted for her friends, the National Weather Service issued two weather advisories to fire officials, warning of a thunderstorm passing the Yarnell area, which was thought to have the potential to create shifting gusts of wind up to 40 miles per hour.
Around 4 p.m., the wind began to falter from its northeasterly course and, Purdy says, it was apparent something had changed. For the first time since a passing thunderstorm ignited the fire on the evening of June 28, Purdy could smell smoke.
Within minutes, Purdy’s mobile phone was signaling an emergency notification from the Sheriff’s Department.
“All it said was, ‘evacuate immediately,’ ” Purdy says. “And I knew it was time to do something right now.”
It was 4:08 p.m.
In the days preceding the evacuation of Glen Ilah—the small community where Purdy lived on the western perimeter of Yarnell—Purdy was instructed that, should it be necessary to flee, a notification would be sent to her one hour in advance of the approaching danger.
But it was clear there wasn’t that much time, Purdy says.
The fire, which had burned northeast of its origin since its ignition, doubled in intensity and tripled in speed of advance with the onset of the storm-driven wind to the southeast. The primary direction of the fire’s spread shifted abruptly from its northeasterly course.
Driven by a gusty tail wind, the fire formed a continuous head of flame at its forefront and tore through the dry grass and chaparral brush surrounding Yarnell, advancing at speeds estimated between 10 and 12 miles per hour.
Purdy knew that many of her friends had not signed up for the emergency notification and would not be aware of the escalating severity of their situation. In her final moments in her home, Purdy says, she made phone calls and sent text messages telling her neighbors they had to get out, and they had to get out now.
Aside from the occasional buzz of an airplane passing overhead for an aerial assault on the flames, the somber town of Yarnell had sat quietly for two days with a watchful eye on the fire. But the newly directed wind brought with it the first sounds of the blaze—a low roar emanating from the west.
“It sounded like a jet plane,” Purdy says. “It was just so loud.”
Still struggling to contact the last of her neighbors, Purdy rushed to pack her important belongings—tax forms, a computer and spare hard drive. Three of her neighbors came over to her home to be sure she made it out safely, grabbed Purdy’s belongings and ran out the back door.
The wall of heat that met the fleeing group as they stepped out the door was so intense that Purdy thought her clothing was going to combust.
“We absolutely ran for our lives,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I go out there, I’m going to catch on fire.’ … Flames were falling everywhere.”
The flames that overtook Purdy’s home moments after she drove away are thought to have exceeded 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to crack large boulders in two and bake retreating snakes to the ground, never to slither again.
On the road, Purdy says, she was met by a fleet of vehicles as her entire community fled south on Arizona Highway 89, descending the 3,500 feet from Yarnell Hill.
“As we were driving down Yarnell Hill, there were flames beginning to crest the hill behind us,” Purdy says.
Once out of harm’s way, Purdy sought refuge with a friend in Scottsdale, where she’d frequently commuted to work as a voice teacher. From there, she intensely monitored the television coverage of the blaze—and got her first glimpses of the destruction wrought on her community by the fire.
At one point, a camera honed in on her property.
“I could see part of my circular driveway,” Purdy says, “but there were no structures on it. I knew there was no way my home could have survived what was coming at me. I knew my home was gone.”
Purdy was one of 127 people whose houses were destroyed.
But that was not the worst of it.
When the fire suddenly switched directions, it redirected right toward 19 retreating members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, who had been retreating through what was thought to be a relatively safe area between the blaze and Yarnell.
None of them survived.
The Price of Development
Joe Smolka’s family first took up residence in Emigration Canyon in 1935. He’s lived there since 1983. At that time, he says, “there were probably about 500 people living up here.”
Today, there are more than 1,500.
With the development of the Emigration Oaks and Emigration Place subdivisions in the 1980s and ’90s, the canyon experienced a rapid influx of new housing appealing to the “upscale” sector of the real-estate market, Smolka says.
This tripling of the canyon’s population necessitated the formation of the Emigration Improvement District to supply adequate water for private use by its residents. But even with the addition of two water holding tanks—able to hold up to 1.3 million gallons—and the installation of fire hydrants serviceable to some 270 of the homes in the canyon, there are still subdivisions in the upper reaches of the canyon that rely entirely upon their own wells and cisterns to provide their water supply, says Fred Smolka, manager of the Emigration Improvement District and Joe’s brother.
Kathy Christiansen, the chairwoman for the Emigration Community Council’s Firewise program, says one concern with the current water infrastructure of the canyon is that if a fire originates at the mouth of the canyon, it could burn the power lines that provide power to the canyon, disabling the pumps that are required to refill Emigration Canyon’s water tanks. Without the ability to replenish water drawn from the holding tanks, water needed to fight a fire would be in short supply.
Fred Smolka says the pump system was set up to be compatible with a generator to safeguard against such an event, but, due to funding issues, no generator has been purchased.
The narrow topography of the Emigration Canyon corridor also poses an issue to road infrastructure, says Mecham of the Unified Fire Authority. Many roads in the canyon are narrow and lined on one or both sides by tall growths of oak brush and juniper trees. Mecham says roads should be at least twice as wide as the height of the tallest vegetation on either side, which is not the case in much of Emigration Canyon. The roads are too narrow and the growth too tall, he says.
“It scares the hell out of me,” Mecham says. “I mean, this is the only main road in and out of here. In the case of a massive evacuation, we’d be hard-pressed to get everyone out.”
Emigration Canyon has not seen a major fire event since 5,600 acres were burned in a Labor Day weekend fire in 1988, the same year Yellowstone National Park lost 793,880 acres in its historic fires. As the memory of the canyon’s last big burn dwindles, Mecham says, he is afraid residents are growing apathetic and are not giving the present risk the attention it deserves.
“They are operating under the assumption that, though a large fire is a high-consequence event, there is a low likelihood of it actually happening,” he says.
Emigration isn’t the only place where this occurs, Mecham says.
In Herriman, where Mecham says 50 to 75 new building permits are being issued each month in the shadow of the Oquirrh Mountains, memories of near-devastating fires are much more recent.
Much of the new development in Herriman has been directed up the mountain toward Camp Williams, Mecham says, which is an area recognized for its tendency to “burn over.”
On Sept. 19, 2010, the Machine Gun Fire, which forced the evacuation of 1,600 Herriman homes, was sparked at Camp Williams during a shooting exercise, when a hot piece of shrapnel was expelled into the dry grass surrounding a machine-gun firing range. That blaze claimed three homes before firefighters were able to bring the flames under control five days after its ignition. Just two years later, the Rose Crest Fire destroyed four homes and forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 others in the same city.
Ten years ago, a fire in those parts of Herriman would have threatened only a few homes, but expansion onto formerly undeveloped wildlands there have placed hundreds more homes in harm’s way.
Despite the recent fires, though, many Herriman homeowners have ignored recommendations from fire authorities to maintain 30 to 50 feet of defensible space—rocks and xeriscaping—around their residences.
The same is true along Traverse Ridge Road and Suncrest Drive between Draper and Alpine; creeping up Highways 190 and 210 toward Utah’s favorite ski canyons; climbing the western slope of Mount Olympus; and in other population-dense “interface” areas, where development has extended deep into wildlands. And that’s where thousands upon thousands of Utahns are on a collision course with conflagration.
Climates of Change
Wildfire season in Utah—which typically lasts from May to October—is determined in duration and intensity primarily by two factors, says Robert Davies, a researcher at the Utah Climate Center.
The amount of moisture available in the ground in summer for plants affects how long vegetation will be able to maintain its water content and remain resistant to wildfire.
And evaporation rates, driven by temperature, determine how rapidly water will be lost from these plants and soils to evaporation, drying the landscape.
These two factors converge each summer as temperatures rise, resulting in the eventual loss of water in the ground to evaporation, Davies says. And these days, he says, that convergence is deepening.
A warming climate and persistent drought has created an environment in which fuels become cured and devoid of moisture earlier each year, allowing them to build into a dry mass that can more easily be made to burn at an intensity sufficient to ignite larger fuels and grow the conflagration—just like what happened in Arizona.
The days each summer with hot temperatures and low humidity are deemed “red flag days.” These are the days with the most heightened risk of ignition, as fuels and the air are at their driest.
According to Davies, over the past 40 years, wildfire seasons in the American West have lengthened, on average, in duration—and fires have tended to burn hotter and burn larger areas. The leading factor of this heightened wildfire activity is a shifting climate, he says, and “this is certainly true of Utah.”
Over the same 40-year period, Utah has experienced warming at a rate twice that of the global average, he says. This warming has reduced each year the total amount of precipitation that falls as snow, reducing average annual snowpack in Utah by 10 percent over the past 30 years.
And when it comes to preventing fire, that’s not good: The snowpack acts as a “reservoir” for water to be held for use into the summer, stopping it from flowing downstream as runoff and “holding it for use in the summer months when we dry out,” Davies says.
Variations in temperature not only alter the form in which precipitation falls but also the rate at which the soil and vegetation lose water to evaporation powered by the sun’s energy, drying landscapes more rapidly with hotter temperatures, he says.
A University of Utah study, which tracked wildfire propensity and intensity in the West since 1984, comparing fire data to climate trends at the time, has predicted 30 years of worsening fire conditions driven by projected changes to the climate.
In addition to the global trend of warming, Utah is subject to cyclical droughts that Davies says can be predicted through monitoring of a portion of ocean in the Western Tropical Pacific. Current indications point toward a gradual relief from the current drought of six years for northern Utah, but, Davies says, more precipitation does not necessarily mean it will be less dry.
“There is a strong probability that because we are going to get a lower snowpack, but not necessarily less precipitation, there is going to be less water for us to use,” Davies says.
According to Davies, current climate models have projected the warming trend to continue globally as well as in Utah, determined in intensity by humanity’s ability to curb current carbon emissions. A reduction in carbon emissions would theoretically slow the rate of warming, but even in the unlikely scenario of emission stabilization in the near future, atmospheric carbon concentrations are expected to rise gradually for many decades to come, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A 2013 report by the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee noted its expectation for intensifying dryness with subsequently worsening wildfires in the southwest United States.
One conflating factor that might also be impacted by climate change: wind.
Utah’s wind patterns are already unpredictable. Indeed, that was a key factor in a blaze that destroyed several homes in Wanship, north of Park City, in fall 2013. The fire was thought to be moving away from the Lake Rockport Estates when a shift in winds—just like the Yarnell fire—pushed it back toward the subdivision.
Those seeking to build in Emigration Canyon’s scenic landscape have, for years, been faced with a fire-prevention conundrum, says David Gellner, a Salt Lake County planner.
In 1997, with hopes of preserving the “natural character” of the county’s canyons and foothills, county planners implemented the Foothills & Canyons Overlay Zone, which, among other things, set limitations on the alterations to the natural landscapes permitted during development.
Many of the original provisions for the overlay zone were in accordance with appropriate wildfire risk mitigation, Gellner says, like limiting building on steep slopes and discouraging development on ridgelines, as flames tend to advance uphill more rapidly than down. But others, such as those restricting the removal of trees and other vegetation from property to preserve aesthetic appeal, “run kind of contrary to fire prevention,” he says.
In 2006, the Wildland-Urban Interface Code was implemented on all interface areas of the county, placing more stringent standards on the use of fire-resistant building materials and road access. Additionally, the Emigration Community Council created a commission in 2012 to identify and amend overlay ordinances that are in contradiction with fire prevention.
As a result, many of the newer homes in Emigration Canyon comply with current fire-safety construction standards, Mecham says. But a large number of the older homes were constructed from susceptible materials such as wood-shake shingles and wood siding, he says.
This factor, he says, in addition to the many areas of unchecked growths of vegetation, has turned much of Emigration Canyon into a hotbed of “non-defensible” homes, many of which would likely not be able to withstand an approaching wildfire.
In 2007, the Emigration Fire Station was constructed by the Unified Fire Authority to provide more rapid response to the communities in the canyon, but, Mecham says, there is only so much that can be done for a home overgrown with vegetation.
According to Capt. Scott Winkler of the Salt Lake Fire Department, the most important factor in whether a home can be saved—or is even worth trying to save—from a fire is defensible space.
By keeping the area directly surrounding a structure clear of vegetation, firefighters are given a “buffer zone” with which they can better defend a structure.
When under threat of fire, Winkler says, officials must conduct “structural triage” in an area, selecting which structures are defensible and worth deploying resources to protect and which of them must be “written off.”
And, of course, not helping the homes’ chances is the surrounding wilderness itself. Many fires that threaten wilderness developments originate away from private land on publicly or federally owned lands, as in Yarnell.
These areas are often neglected in terms of fuel reduction and fire risk mitigation efforts, says Utah State University human ecologist and professor Mark Brunson, due to in part to worsening fire seasons that require more money and resources to combat. Brunson says that the majority of the fire budget for the Bureau of Land Management & Forest Service is spent fighting fires, leaving little to cover the costs of fuel reduction.
Fuel reduction on the individual and communal level would most benefit communities and homes in wilderness areas, Brunson says.
“At the scale of an individual property, there are all sorts of things people can do to make their homes fire-safe,” he says.
Firewise program chairwoman Kathy Christiansen says many people in Emigration Canyon have been responsive to her efforts to coordinate risk mitigation within the canyon. With grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Christiansen has been able to hire an eight-person wildland firefighting crew from Salt Lake City to clear away debris and vegetation from the township’s “common areas.” In the past, goats have also been allowed to graze in these areas as a means of fuel reduction.
Brunson says a number of techniques may be effectively employed to reduce the fuels in an area, including mowing grasses and brush, “selective cutting” of trees and clearing away dead, fallen growth.
But those who actively take measures to mitigate the risk on their property are still far outnumbered by those who do not, Mecham says.
Each year, the Unified Fire Authority and the Salt Lake Fire Department launch campaigns to spread awareness and offer advice on how to improve the safety of homes in the county’s interface areas.
For those, like Purdy, who are rebuilding their homes in Yarnell, the choice to implement fire-protection strategies in the building of their new home and arrangement of their property is an easy one. With the memory of that day in June still fresh in their minds, adding cleared defensible spaces and constructing with fire-resistant materials is now a matter of course.
The Salt Lake Fire Department’s Winkler says he hopes residents of the Salt Lake Valley will look to the examples of recent fires—like the one in Yarnell—and plan ahead rather than wait to be forced into action by a fire.
But while Winkler has noticed a spread of awareness—which, he says, is the first necessary step—he’s still waiting to observe significant action.
Clayton Leuba is a student in the department of journalism and communication at Utah State University.