Summit County was largely spared from damaging wildfires last summer but officials are predicting a return to an average fire season this year, noting slightly higher temperatures than normal along with lower humidity and precipitation.
Officials are also continuing work to increase the county’s hardiness against wildfire, targeting four additional West Side neighborhoods to achieve a national fire readiness designation and offering programs countywide to help homeowners create defensible space around their homes.
There have already been 17 fires in the county this spring, said Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer, most of which began as controlled burns but were impacted by high winds. And a 680-acre blaze in Wasatch County started May 12 and had been 85% contained a week later.
Officials have indicated it is early for a fire of that size, but that it may have been started intentionally.
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Boyer said the prediction of an average season might change in the June forecast, as he said the weather has been windier than originally predicted.
“In wildland fires, wind trumps all. Got a lot of wind events, fires tend to become more active,” he said.
Park City Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Owens said now is the time for residents to start thinking about protecting their homes from fire by cleaning out gutters, removing needles and leaves from roofs and under decks, and putting screens on openings into attics.
Owens said that recent disastrous fires in California have taught fire experts that the wall of flames isn’t the biggest threat to structures, but rather the small embers that fly through the air. He recommended residents cover openings in their homes like attic ventilation with screens that can stop embers as small as 1/8 of an inch in size.
“Any place where the wind blows leaves is where the embers are going to collect,” Owens said.
There are programs on both the eastern and western areas of the county to aid homeowners looking to harden their homes, and both Owens and Boyer report increased interest in them.
Earlier this month, Owens presented to the County Council the work of a blue-ribbon committee that examined a potential structure protection ordinance that would regulate things like the removal of vegetation near homes that increases the risk of wildfire.
He also reported on discussions with community leaders like homeowner’s association representatives who largely lauded the efforts but questioned who would pay for the work and their ability to enforce regulations.
While two neighborhoods on the West Side have already achieved “firewise” status — Summit Park and The Colony — Park City firefighter Brant Lucas told the council the requirements of membership in the National Fire Protection Association’s program can be as little as one hour of volunteer work per year. Some homeowners in Summit Park, where he lives, might face costs of around $10,000 if they were to remove all the vegetation required to harden their homes, he said.
He said only “a very small number” of homes in the wildland urban interface are adequately controlled against fire. The wildland-urban interface is an area where human-made structures are in or near areas that are prone to wildfire, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
“Summit Park has seen 75% buy-in from the members in the community doing work to maintain their firewise recognition,” Lucas said. “But the work that you see driving around Summit Park, the work can be very minimal.”
Councilor Roger Armstrong suggested pursuing a bulk-purchasing program to try to bring costs down for homeowners, similar to what the county has done for solar power.
Owens said that the Park City Fire District has hired a full-time wildland structure inspector who will go to homes inside the district’s boundaries in western Summit County and teach homeowners what to do to improve the safety of their homes.
“If there’s landscaping work (required, the inspector would say) let me show you how to clean out around a tree so it looks good and so it’s firesafe, let me show you how to limb the branches off this tree,” Owens explained.
Lucas said the reaction from homeowners to fire mitigation strategies has been mixed but generally supportive.
“Form what I’ve seen (we’re) getting one-third of people very eager to do the work — got the time, resources or money to get the work done,” Lucas said. “(Another) one-third want work done (but) don’t have resources, and one-third don’t want you on the property at all.”
Both the Park City Fire District and the fire services on the East Side have wood-chipping programs to take care of the piles of brush homeowners create when hardening their homes.
Owens said he’s already had hundreds of requests this year and Boyer said he’s fielded calls from interested homeowners, as well.
Information on how to harden a home can be found at summitcounty.org/firewarden.