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Utah braces for upcoming fire season

Wildfire costs expected to grow as urban sprawl increases

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 6:05 p.m. MST

The Quail Fire rages in Alpine July 3, 2012.

Tim Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The snow may still cling to the ground and remain in the mountains, but emergency management experts are already warning that the 2013 fire season could echo the devastation seen last summer across the state.

Heightened risk to so-called "mega-fires" is one of the many messages underscored in tandem with National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, which began March 3 and ends Saturday.

Nationally, the 2012 wildfire season left 11 firefighters dead, 9.3 million acres burned and 4,244 structures destroyed, including 2,216 homes.

"As the weather becomes more extreme across the nation, so does the threat of fire," said Joe Dougherty, spokesman with the Utah Division of Emergency Management. "Utahns are encouraged to know their risks, take action and be an example to others."

National wildfire costs have averaged $1.8 billion annually for the past five years and are only anticipated to grow higher as development spreads to what's called the wildland urban interface, where the sprawl of homes and businesses abut the foothills or heavily-vegetated areas.

A recent report by Headwaters Economics used 2010 U.S. Census data to map development in the wildland urban interface in 11 Western states and county by county in each state.

The analysis, which includes an interactive data map, shows that 84 percent of private lands near fire-prone areas remains undeveloped in the West. If just half of that land is developed in the future, the report warns that annual firefighting costs could escalate to as much as $4.3 billion. As a comparison, the organization notes the entire budget for the U.S. Forest Service is $5.5 billion.

"The point of this report is that fires are awfully expensive and they have been getting more expensive over time," said Ray Rasker, Headwaters' director. "While homes are not the only factor, they are a contributing one."

Utah ranks No. 9 out of the 11 states analyzed for the amount of its interface that remains undeveloped — 93.4 percent — a number that surprises state fire management officer Tracy Dunford with the Divison of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

"There's hardly a place in the Salt Lake Valley that hasn't been developed, in my opinion," Dunford said. He said he used to train prison fire crews in Draper's Corner Canyon, years ago, and that's all been replaced with homes.

The Headwaters' analysis shows nearly half of Salt Lake County's wildland urban interface has been developed — by far the highest county in the state — followed by Weber County at 28 percent.

Firefighting costs greatly increase in those type of developed areas because of the desire to protect homes.

"Only 2 percent of naturally ignited fires are allowed to burn because homes are in the way," Rasker said. "The natural role of fire has been recognized as an important land management tool, yet it is very difficult to implement that because there are homes."

So while Utah overall enjoys a good ranking for the least amount of developed wildland interface, it also risks incurring greater costs if future development isn't handled wisely.

To that end, Utah adopted an urban interface code that counties are required to adopt if there is desire to participate in cooperative agreements that address fire suppression and sharing financial costs.

Division spokesman Jason Curry said county governments have to develop safety measures and have in place mitigation plans to reduce the risk of fire in the urban interface areas.

Additionally, the state has developed community wildfire protection plans that number at 200 participants that include urbanized areas like Sandy and rural hamlets such as New Harmony in Washington County.

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