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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.