Expansion fuels flames

 Expansion fuels flames

 16 August 2008

published by www.thespectrum.com 

Ca, USA — When he looks at the cabins dotting the hills and the new homes venturing further into the wilderness throughout Southwestern Utah, St. George resident Henry Perez sees more than just an expanding populous.

“It’s starting to look a little familiar,” said Perez, who lived outside Santa Clara, Calif., in 2003 when wildfires destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Monsoons have slowed the wildfires this season – interagency officials have responded to only some 200 fires this year, compared with the 500 or 600 they usually get, and the fire danger level has been lowered to moderate because of the moisture.

Still, residents should be aware that the fire season is not over yet, said Nick Howell, fire management specialist with the Bureau of Land Management.

“Just because we’ve had above-average precipitation this year doesn’t mean it’s a reason to get complacent,” he said.

The fire season typically ends by the middle of November, but until it snows or there is a significant rain event, the risk is still there, Howell said.

“We’re crossing our fingers that we don’t get a late-season incident,” he said.

In general, fire danger is getting larger in Southwestern Utah all the time. For the last decade and more, the region’s population growth has coincided with more and more people moving into the outlying fringe of municipal areas, where recreational and aesthetic amenities inspire homes built into the natural landscape.

Firefighters call this area where human development meets nature the wildland-urban interface – WUI. Within the WUI, fire can move readily between structural and vegetation fuels and its expansion in recent years has increased the likelihood that wildfires will threaten structures and people.

Following a landmark fire season in 2000, the federal government instituted the National Fire Plan, a federal program directing fire officials nationwide to not only be able to respond to fires, but to work on prevention efforts and community assistance.

Between Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties, officials have identified 109 communities at risk for wildland fires. So for Southwestern Utah, community fire councils have become a priority, said John Schmidt, wildland urban interface coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The region faces a problem found throughout the country, Schmidt said, that increases the risk of a wildland fire. Years of fire suppression have resulted in more vegetation – and more fuel for fires.

“When you look at those old pictures of the area, it’s not like this,” he said. “It’s wide open spaces.”

Add in frequent extended periods of drought, and the growth of invasive species such as cheat grass, which helps fuel fires, and the area is becoming increasing susceptible, Schmidt said.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” Schmidt said about local communities in the WUI.

For the residents who have moved into Southwestern Utah’s WUI, many of whom come from outside the region, fire danger was never even a consideration.

Vinny O’Neil, originally from Boston, moved to Ivins from Cincinnati, Ohio, with little knowledge of wildfires and none of the wildland urban interface. Today, he is the chairman of the Ivins fire council, and a proponent for the community-wide protection well-developed fire plans can provide.

“You don’t need to be a fire expert,” he said. “Don’t feel like you can’t get involved and contribute.”

O’Neil said he is still working on some of the action items outlined in the Ivins fire plan, partly because people in that community have to consider the city’s ordinances focused on preserving a natural environment aesthetic. However, even with some obstacles, he said it is worthwhile to take steps to be protected.

Some residents have gone out and aggressively tried to implement items from the fire plan, while others haven’t done anything, but once a lot of the work is done it could make a major difference, O’Neil said.

“I think when we can complete some of these action items we’ll feel a little more safe,” he said.

The fire plans don’t only help prevent fire, but help firefighters if a fire does break out. When wildfires are burning, interagency firefighters often come from different parts of the country and a detailed fire plan can help them figure out the terrain of each community, Schmidt said.

“Instantly they get a picture of the community,” he said.

Schmidt said the community councils play an important role for residents in the WUI, because community-based plans are more likely to garner participation, and tend to get precedence for government grants.

“At first we were able to get a lot of different people involved, from a lot of different communities,” he said. “But what we found is it doesn’t work so well unless it comes from a person in the community.”

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