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State program helps Utah homeowners reduce wildfire threat

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 7:33 a.m. MDT

Participation in a community fire plan isn't mandatory, and property owners who do participate still retain control over how much vegetation is removed from their land. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Participation in a community fire plan isn't mandatory, and property owners who do participate still retain control over how much vegetation is removed from their land. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

FRUITLAND, Duchesne County — They may be officially retired, but there's plenty of work for Bill and Michelle Hill to do around their mountaintop home in the Bandana Ranch subdivision.

There is also plenty to enjoy.

"The green trees around, the clear air," Michelle Hill said Thursday, listing some of her favorite things about living with her husband among the cedars and pinon-junipers.

But the surroundings present a potential threat to the couple and their retirement home.

"It is a double-edged sword," Michelle Hill said. "Last year, we had a lot of fires around us. It made me nervous all summer."

So this spring, the Hills invited Ken Ludwig to take a look around their property to see what could be done to reduce the wildfire danger.

"The most critical part around this house, and most homes, is the first 30 feet," said Ludwig, a wildland urban interface coordinator with the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

"Within that 30 feet, we don't believe in clear-cutting, but we believe in really thinning (the trees and shrubs) out quite a bit," Ludwig said.

The practice creates "defensible space" around a structure, making it more likely to escape damage in a wildfire. The existence of defensible space is also one of the factors fire managers consider when deciding whether to send firefighters to protect a home or cabin, Ludwig said.

"Homes can be replaced; lives can't," he said. "We're not going to put someone in there if we don't think they can safely protect that home."

The work to clear trees, shrubs and grasses from around homes and cabins is part of larger community fire plans Ludwig has helped develop with a number of communities in the five counties he serves. The program is funded by a federal grant that requires those who benefit from the work to contribute "sweat equity," Ludwig said.

"They're not getting something for nothing," he said.

Participation in a community fire plan isn't mandatory, and property owners who do participate still retain control over how much vegetation is removed from their land.

"If they don't want a tree removed, we'll leave it," Ludwig said. "We'll work around it as much as we can, but they've got to realize we'll suggest what we think as a firefighter is the safest for them, and they've got their choice."

Jerry Nelson recently had Ludwig's crews working around his home in Duchesne County's Pinion Ridge area. When the crews finished, one of the firefighters told Nelson he'd feel safe defending the home, based on the clearing that had been created.

"He said, 'I can defend this and not fear for my life,'" Nelson said. "That's exciting, because human life is more important than things, but we'd like our homes to be protected."

With the initial work done by Ludwig's crews and members of the community, it's now up to Nelson and the Hills to maintain the clearings around their respective homes.

"It's something that you need to stay on top of every year," Michelle Hill said. "If you love your home up here, you take care of it."

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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