Park City Weighs Fire Reduction Measures Including Controlled Burns in Old Town

As plumes of smoke rose above Park City in August, residents and visitors received a stern reminder of the ever-present wildfire danger the town faces. The skies ominously darkened in the early afternoon while flames from the Parleys Canyon fire leapt up the hillside along I-80 towards neighborhoods on the western edge of Snyderville Basin. A tremendous interagency response involving hundreds of firefighters and dozens of aircraft was able to contain the blaze, but the evacuations of thousands of Summit Park and Pinebrook residents underscored the precarious nature of the ground this mountain community is built on. Officials in Park City are planning steps to mitigate the threat with prescribed burns on the hillsides above Historic Old Town, even as some expect to encounter public pushback.

The Park City Council authorized an agreement for up to $300,000 in wildfire risk reduction for the Treasure Hill acreage above Old Town after City Hall received a submission from Wanship-based firm Alpine Forestry LLC. The submission outlines plans for controlled burns across the mountainside acreage, which has been owned by the city since a $64 million deal in 2019 that protected the area from further development. The area constitutes a wildland urban interface (WUI), wherein expensive homes and other structures in Historic Old Town mix with undeveloped land on the flank of Park City Resort. The landscape is highly susceptible to wildfire danger and is a prime candidate for some kind of mitigation effort.

Even when appropriate and well-intentioned, fire mitigation often runs up against pushback. Such was the case when Basin Recreation undertook a multi-year fuel reduction project in the Summit Park area. The award-winning effort consists of removing hazardous fuels by patch-cutting, selectively thinning and removing ladder fuels and brush before placing them in slash piles and burning them under supervision in appropriate conditions. Despite the project’s urgent need—as recently proven—and flawless execution, public forums like the always-entertaining Nextdoor platform were full of misinformation about deforestation and tree removal. Forest thinning and fuel reduction not only helps keep homes from burning down, but also dramatically improves forest health. Nevertheless, the spread of negative opinion took a substantial public education campaign to initially overcome, and some still lodge protest to this day.

Slash piles slated for controlled burns in Summit Park last winter. Similar strategies may be employed on the Treasure Hill acreage above Old Town.

The mitigation plans for Treasure Hill are long overdue. But as certain as I am the fuel reduction strategies and controlled burns are merited, I’m equally confident there’s going to be some sort of public response decrying it. City Hall can’t seem to sneeze without inviting controversy—see the never-ending row about a Black Lives Matter mural on Main Street—or how everything from development debates to issues about contaminated soil conversations veer towards falsehoods and ad hominem attacks. When prescribed burns send smoke aloft over Main Street and multi-million dollar second homes, people likely won’t bite their tongues. In short, good luck, City Hall.

Ideally the community begins to engage in conversations about fuel reduction and fire mitigation early and often to help guide public opinion in the right direction. Natural and well-managed forests aren’t filled with deadfall and overgrown brush and ladder fuels like the area surrounding Park City. As a recent fire evacuee and a former Old Town resident, I can assure you a little forest pruning is preferable to worrying about your house burning down. City Hall is trying to prepare for the inevitable to make the community a more sustainable place to live, especially as it continues to expand. One question remains: is the community at large willing to invest in and support an ounce of prevention? That’s not an easy answer these days.

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Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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