Last year 53 fires destroyed 1,926 acres throughout the Uinta National Forest, making 1987 the worst fire season on record. But with 1988 shaping up as another dry year, forestry officials fear a new fire record could be set this year.
"We're looking at another dry one this year that could even be worse" than 1987, Uinta National Forest Supervisor Don Nebeker recently told the Utah County Council of Governments. "We are anticipating possibly a disastrous year."Compounding that problem, he said, is increasing residential construction in areas dubbed the "urban wildland interface."
The interface includes wooded and brush areas near cities that, though pleasant to live in, are dangerous from a firefighter's perspective. Homeowners living near the slopes of Mount Timpanogos found that out last summer when a lightning-caused blaze consumed 1,272 acres and came within half a mile of several homes.
Nebeker said an increasing number of homes nationally are being built in areas like Elk Ridge, Hobble Creek and Sundance that are difficult to protect from fire. Because the homes are surrounded with dense, flammable vegetation, officials expect an increasing number of life- and property-threatening fires.
"That's created a new fire problem," said Dick Buehler, regional manager of the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry. "We have a similar situation in Utah and right here in Utah County. We all have a role in this."
Forestry officials and Lt. Gary Clayton of the sheriff's department hope to see increased cooperation and coordination from fire departments and municipalities throughout the Uinta National Forest, which is located mainly in Juab, Utah and Wasatch counties.
"We desperately need to pull together," Nebeker said. "There isn't a city on the Wasatch Front that's immune. It really doesn't take a lot but commitment."
Recommendations include development of a cooperative communications plan for all affected agencies and municipalities and adoption of wildfire hazards and residential-development guidelines.
One of the reasons to adopt and enforce guidelines, Nebeker said, is to avoid litigation that has plagued other areas. In the past three years, more than 2,000 homes throughout the nation have been lost to wildland fires, resulting in millions of dollars in litigation $26 million in California alone in 1986.
In addition, officials are calling for a cooperative fire-protection program that outlines the role of individual agencies and ensures effective planned management of fires and other disasters. The forest service, state of Utah and Utah County also should prepare fire-suppression plans for the Wasatch Front.
"If we do some cooperative work, I think we can really do some good," said Clayton, the county's emergency services coordinator.
Other recommendations include additional training for firefighters and dispatchers and providing homeowners with information to help them protect themselves from fire.
Forestry officials offer several fire-safety tips for people with homes in wild-land areas:
1. Prepare a safety ring around the home by cutting tall grass, removing brush and small trees, raking leaves and twigs, pruning tree branches, thinning dense tree areas and removing other combustible materials near the home.
2. Screen openings to the roof and attic and equip chimneys with stovepipes with screens.
3. Construct house roofs with fire-resistant materials; avoid building flat roofs that allow combustible materials to pile up.
4. Install underground power and telephone lines.
5. Plan several escape routes, and have available an evacuation vehicle.