“Thankfully, this fire [was] in the hillside” and not in the more volatile areas, says Eric Jergensen, who represents the city’s Avenues and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. “We dodged a bullet.” This past May, Jergensen, whose District 3 includes City Creek Canyon, was already pushing the city to more aggressively clear out brush and combustible dead growth in the canyon. He urged stepping up routine maintenance with a concentrated offensive on the brush by armies of city workers armed with dump trucks and chain saws. While the recent blaze has given the proposed brush blitzkrieg a renewed sense of urgency, the city Fire Department is looking at the matter a little more cautiously. Too much clearing could be too much of a good thing.
The city’s Public Utilities Department already does a certain amount of growth clearing in the city. But Jergensen, an avid hiker of City Creek Canyon, believes more could be done. “We never quite stay ahead of it,” he says. “There’s an overabundance of dead wood up there that, if it were to catch on fire, would explode,” Jergensen says. “[But] there’s a limited quantity of it; if we methodically take it out, it would be gone.”
Jergensen and the city’s Public Utilities are in agreement on this point, given a study released in May 2008 by Utilities that explored the city’s options—including more mechanized brush removal (chain-saw teams) that would focus on creating “islands of safety” or pockets of thinned-out brush mainly around roads and picnic areas where people are most often present.
In the months before the fire, the first wave of city work crews had started a more expansive brush cleanup, clearing sides of the road up City Creek and taking more than 30 dump-truck loads of growth out of the canyon. “Unfortunately for us, that sounds like more than it is if you were to walk up there,” says Tom Ward, deputy director of Public Utilities. Ward says that putting a real dent in hazardous combustible growth will require more resources. “A wholesale increase in fuels reduction is going to acquire additional funding,” Ward says.
“The sad thing is that costs are driving whether we move quickly or not on this,” Jergensen says. While the crews have stepped up their clearing, Jergensen hopes to muster the appropriate resources to clear out more trouble spots. The price tag for a prolonged campaign may cost as much as $300,000. Even with alarm bells already rung by the recent City Creek blaze, Salt Lake City Fire Department spokesman Scott Freitag is not so sure.
“What we’ve been doing thus far works,” Freitag says. “I think that the work everybody has done speaks to that.” Freitag notes that fire itself isn’t the measure of success or failure but whether or not lives and property are lost. “We haven’t lost a structure in [City Creek] in a long time.” Freitag says that the department’s policy of restricting fireworks and campfires and educating the public about fire hazards has succeeded in keeping this season’s fires down. Freitag also worries that too much cleanup could upset a delicately balanced ecosystem when the fire threat is simply not there.
“It’s a balancing act,” Freitag says. “The growth provides a function. It’s a part of the canyon, it’s what holds the canyon together.” Freitag notes that the growth helps prevent soil erosion and the shade provided by vegetation such as scrub oak provides wildlife habitat.
Ward says his department is careful to not overdo the cutting and maintains that more could be done to clear safe spots for people in the canyon. Ward also agrees the cleanup won’t prevent fires and that more public education is needed, especially for homeowners who live in the canyon.
Freitag says, however, that the current model of focusing on protecting property is enough. Nature can take care of the rest. “Fire is nature’s way of clearing out growth. We need to remember that we’ve encroached into nature, nature hasn’t encroached into us.”