St. George, UT, USA — Residents in the No. 1 at-risk community in southwestern Utah in terms of fire danger are upset that officials have authorized tree removal in county rights of way for emergency access.
“The county is cutting down trees against the wishes of the homeowners,” said Barbara Truesdale, a resident of the Dixie Deer area in Central. “All of the homeowners are up in arms about it.”
Truesdale lives on Cedar Drive, one of two streets chosen to show residents what the county and state fire officials want to do in the entire area. Workers began cutting down trees Tuesday morning within the right of way on Cedar Drive. “Most of us moved up here because we want to be in the trees,” Truesdale said. “We are saddened to see the trees being cut.”
The reasoning goes back to a meeting held at the Central Fire Station in January. The officials proposed clearing all vegetation within 10 feet of the road and thinning other trees and brush within the rest of the rights of way.
“Right now, if there was a fire there, we couldn’t get fire trucks in and have people come out at the same time,” said Alan Gardner, Washington County commissioner. “It’s really an unsafe situation.”
The operation is part of the National Fire Plan, which offers federal money to help protect communities from wildfires. Ron Wilson, southwest area manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, told residents at the January meeting that Central is the No. 1 at-risk community in the area.
Concern is present not only for the residents and their homes, but also the firefighters who might have to travel the roads of Central to protect those residents and homes.
Gordon Poppitt, a Central resident who serves on the local fire council, tried to explain the reasoning behind the cutting and thinning to a group of residents who gathered Wednesday morning along Cedar Drive to protest the operation. They set up chairs along the side of the road and hung signs on trees asking the county not to cut them down.
Poppitt spoke of a wildfire in California where many residents died in their vehicles trying to evacuate because the roads were not wide enough for them to escape. County officials have said it would be impossible for another vehicle to pass a large fire engine in Central if its doors were open in firefighting mode. The roads also help provide fire breaks.
The residents who gathered Wednesday did not seem to agree with the reasoning. Phil Truesdale, Barbara’s husband, said most of them had four-wheel-drive vehicles and could get around other vehicles in the way. He said if one road was not accessible, they would just choose another route to evacuate.
He said they knew the area was fire-prone when they moved there in 1976. The residents understand the risk, he said, and if fighting a fire would endanger the firefighters, they should just let his home burn.
“Nobody wants anyone to die trying to save a house,” he said.
However, county officials said the residents might change their minds if a fire did come through the area.
“They’re all mad now, but if there was a fire there and something happened, they’d be really mad at the county for not taking proper steps,” Gardner said.
Another resident, Barbara Corbett, was worried about what would happen to the rights of way after the trees were gone.
“They want to trade the trees and green stuff for cheat grass,” she said, saying she didn’t believe the county would go to the trouble of maintaining the rights of way.
Whitehead said the county does have a program to spray for weeds along county rights of way. Central would be a part of that program.
But aside from the cutting itself, the residents’ primary concern seemed to be an understanding that officials would not proceed with the operation unless the residents supported it. They also said county officials pledged to have another public meeting before beginning the cutting.
Some officials at the January meeting did indicate they would not cut the trees without support from the residents. But the second meeting was in question.
Neither Gardner nor Whitehead remembered a promise about holding a second meeting before cutting any trees. Both men said they left the meeting with an understanding that they would identify a few roads to show what they would do and then find out how the residents felt about it.
“We never intended to do two public meetings before we started this,” Whitehead said.
Following the first meeting, county and fire officials met with the local fire council to talk about the plan and decide on which roads to use as examples.