People get pretty excited the fire is out and think their problems are over, when they are not. —Rich Giraud, Utah Geological Survey
HUNTINGTON CANYON, Emery County — Mud and debris flows in the aftermath of the Seeley wildfire is spurring federal emergency managers to remind area residents they face a Sunday deadline to purchase flood insurance.
The burn scar left from the 75-square-mile fire has left residents particularly vulnerable to property damage because heavy rain can unleash unstable hillsides.
Debris flows earlier this month already forced the closure of state Route 31 from Crandall Canyon to Miller's Flat Junction. Emery County Sheriff's Capt. Kyle Ekker said in addition to damage to the roadway, repeated mud flows have caused problems for the operations of Huntington Power Plant, coal mines and construction sites. Overall, there have been rain events that have triggered flood and debris flows.
Ekker said the slides are likely to continue well into the next few years because of rain and spring runoff.
This summer's epidemic of wildfires in the western United States led the federal government to grant an exception to the 30-day waiting period for flood insurance to go into effect. Under the waiver, a flood claim can be filed before the normal 30-day waiting period if an insurance adjustor determines flood damage was made worse or caused by post-wildfire conditions.
The trick, federal emergency managers said, is to get the insurance within 60 days of the wildfire's containment date. In the case of the Seeley fire, containment was set at July 18, so the deadline for getting insurance is Sunday.
"People get pretty excited the fire is out and think their problems are over, when they are not," said Rich Giraud, senior geologist with the Utah Geological Survey. "You don't have vegetation in those burn scar areas to buffer that rainfall and runoff."
Just a short, isolated rainstorm can trigger a debris flow from a burn area. From 2000 to 2004, seven burn areas had 26 debris flows, Giraud said, ranging from 30 cubic yards to as big as 20,000 cubic yards.
“If you live in or near a wildfire area, your risk of flooding could be worse,” said Randy Welch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We’ve already seen some flooding in the Seeley Fire area. It will take years for the land to grow new vegetation, so the flood risk will stay around for a long time. It could happen a few years from now, or it could happen next week. We encourage everyone who may be affected to buy flood insurance right away and definitely within the grace period.”
The waiting-period exception kicked in as a result of the the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, signed into law July 6 by President Barack Obama. The measure increases access to the National Flood Insurance Program for some residents whose homes were impacted by flooding from federal land that resulted from wildfires.
Residents can learn more about flood risks in their area by contacting their insurance agent or by visiting www.floodsmart.gov.
The government also offers flood preparedness tips and ways to protect your family during these events.