“They just issued an evacuation order for Mt. Aire. Are you guys okay?” The text message inquired. I was more confused than alarmed. Working away at home in my pandemic bubble, I was totally oblivious to the creeping threat hinted at in the text. While I was staring at a screen with a half-eaten PB&J in hand, a wildfire sparked on I-80 by a dragging truck chain was moving its way up Parley’s Canyon towards the neighborhood where I and thousands of others live.
It’s easy to feel insulated from the consequence of wildfires. To many in Utah, the blazes are something that happens in California, a cautionary tale of overzealous development with a callous disregard of causal behavior. Sure, we have a cute little Smokey Bear sign displaying today’s fire danger rating at the bottom of communities like mine in Summit Park, but the devastation of an inferno couldn’t possibly come to our doorstep. Could it?
Only You (& Everybody) Can Help This Fire Season
Firewise landscaping techniques go a long way in helping protect your property and your community. Some of the basics include keeping tall grass away from structures, thinning dense tree stands and keeping all combustible materials like firewood on the outside edge of the defensible space on your property. Learn more about Firewise tips by visiting Utah State University’s Forestry Extension online.
“It’s only a matter of time before we have an incident that takes a lot of homes in Utah,” says Trevor Pollock, an air attack officer who flies in the right seat of a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) AC690 Turbo Commander aircraft. Pollock spent nearly three decades on BLM hotshot crews and happened to work the August 2020 fire in Parley’s Canyon that precipitated the alarming text. Within days the fire was 90% contained, evacuation orders were lifted, and no structures were lost, but that outcome was far from a certainty.
“We were fortunate in several ways. First, we had a lot of airpower accessible quickly. There was a VLAT (Very Large Air Tanker) sitting in Pocatello ready to go and three type-one helicopters (very big) and a type-three BLM helicopters (less big) on the scene in minutes,” Pollock explains. “We also lucked out with the wind. When the fire started about a mile from Mt. Aire, there was an up-canyon wind moving it away from the neighborhood. We got retardant down and then a down-canyon wind shift helped contain the fire back on itself where fuel was already spent. Without those specific circumstances, things could have gone a lot differently over 12 hours.”
Park City—along with much of Summit and Wasatch counties—is considered a wildland-urban interface (WUI), where homes intermingle with undeveloped vegetation. WUI areas are at far greater risk of catastrophic wildfire because human activity can spark wildfires and homes contain a lot of combustible material. Add in the fact that human habitation leads to continual fire suppression efforts, limiting natural fuel reduction and thus increasing fire danger as it accumulates, and it’s easy to see why WUI fires can be so devastating.
Left undisturbed, wildfires will manage forests naturally. Regular fires will burn fuel near the ground without decimating the forest. In the absence of this naturally occurring cycle, a greater continuity of fuels builds up between the ground and tree canopies, leading to a “ladder effect” where the wildfire can climb into treetops and spread with explosive speed. The best available tools to counter this threat are fuel reduction programs.
Basin Recreation, under the direction of the Summit County Fire Warden and Alpine Forestry, undertook such a program beginning in summer 2020 through spring 2021. Over the summer, crews cleared brush, deadfall and other fuel, stacking it into hundreds of slash piles. Once the ground was covered in snow, they performed controlled burns. The forest’s appearance changed starkly, transformed by raised tree canopies and thinned brush. Some online commentators decried “deforestation,” when, in reality, they were opposing sustainable forest management, which will protect homes and create a healthier environment.
Wildfire threat is only increasing as development continues to expand amid a changing climate. Protecting the community is an ongoing process that involves everyone. “The state of Utah does some amazing work,” Pollock says. “We need the community and the support for the fire and fuels projects that give firefighters the help they need to protect our homes.”