Utah braces for upcoming fire season
Wildfire costs expected to grow as urban sprawl increases
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.
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.
Curry pointed out that it is not the role of the division to preach growth limits in these areas, but to reduce fire risk.
The state has also mapped and ranked more than 600 at-risk communities in all 29 counties based on the how hazardous the fire fuels are, the value of what is at risk and the level and extent of emergency fire response immediately available.
Dunford said the list and attendant map are intended as a guide to help communities reduce their risk, so it stops short of delivering any consequences to town leaders or developers who've allowed homes to be built in the interface or residents who have moved in.
"In my opinion there probably ought to be some places where development isn't allowed, or at least through some regulatory process transfer the responsibility to those who are at risk, who have the most to lose," Dunford said.
Rasker said the rise in wildland firefighting costs because of urban encroachment is a problem widely recognized, but it gets little discussion.
"Where the conversation gets stuck nationally on this is that people say, 'Yes, it is a problem, but what do you do about it?'"
Headwaters developed a white paper listing multiple recommendations that he said should at least jumpstart the conversation.
Rasker said just like flood plain designations and flood insurance are handled federally, perhaps fire-prone high risk areas should be treated similarly, with heightened requirements for insurance coverage at higher prices.
Another change Rasker said would force state and local governments to rethink development in the interface would be to reduce federal firefighting budgets so more costs are shifted to the local level.
Dunford said those shifts are already starting to play out, at least in Utah, with the Forest Service advising the state it will no longer provide free loads of fire retardant in the initial attack of a blaze.
"It used to be the federal government was more willing to share a larger portion of the cost of fighting a fire," Dunford said. "But they've told us if we want fire retardant, to go ahead and order it."
A fire season like Utah went through in 2012, with hundreds of homes and entire communities evacuated, always reminds people of the risk of building in the interface, Dunford said.
"And then time passes and the urgency goes away and they forget about it."
The division, however, continually works with counties, communities and people to advise them of the risks, danger and proactive steps that can be taken to help ward off disaster.
"Some are doing what they can and have a good understanding of their role," Dunford said. "Others, not so much."
Rasker is hopeful that federal and state agencies, as well as policy makers that include Congress, at least begin a public dialogue on an issue he warns is going to grow more severe over time.
"It's dangerous, expensive and the costs are just going to keep going up," he said. "And more and more of these homes are real obstacles to land management."