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Inferno

The Wasatch Front's prime canyon developments are also primed for fiery destruction

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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