SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Crofts is doing what he can to reduce the chances of his home burning in a wildfire.
“We’ve been working quite a few weekends now to clear out some of the underbrush from around our house,” Crofts said.
“We read about a really dry year and we wanted to make sure that we have a nice space around us that wasn’t basically just fuel for fire.”
Emigration Canyon is filled with Utah history. It’s also filled with trees, brush and homes. Firefighters say it is one of the most likely spots in the state for a devastating wildfire.
Unified Fire Authority Chief Dan Petersen explained the risks to the Salt Lake County Council at a meeting in March.
“Emigration Canyon,” Petersen said, “from my conversations here, is probably the one that scares all of us the most just because of the density of homes, the way the canyon is defined, and the fact that it has the history. It has burned.”
Much of Utah has a stake in Emigration Canyon.
It takes its name from the route Latter-day Saints and other pioneers took to enter the Salt Lake Valley. There are historical sites.
Nate Carlisle joins Max Roth below to discuss why officials are so concerned about Utah's current wildfire risk
The canyon is also part of the Salt Lake City watershed, meaning people who never step foot in Emigration Canyon rely on it for drinking water.
Across the road from his house, Bill Tobey points to a large stand of Gambel oak and bigtooth maple. They cover the sides of the Emigration Canyon.
“I did probably call it a bomb waiting to happen,” said Tobey, who is chair of the Emigration Canyon Community Council. “This is a risk that has been accumulating in the 100-plus years that we’ve been suppressing fire.”
Topography is another problem, Tobey says. The canyon forms a natural chimney for winds.
“So,” he explained, “if there are winds blowing along the main access of the Salt Lake Valley, those winds get channeled and accelerated.”
Burning homes aren’t the only things the canyon’s 1,600 residents have to worry about. Emigration Canyon includes the communities of Pinecrest and Killyons Canyon.
They have one road in and out. Firefighters worry that a blaze will trap homeowners in the path of a fire.
Lack of roads is a problem for firefighters wanting to reach flames, too, said Matthew McFarland, spokesman for UFA. In an inferno where firefighters have to decide where to make a stand, the first
homes they are going to try to save will be those where the owners have already created defensible space.
“And then properties where it looks like the homeowner hasn’t taken on that burden of work to prepare the property,” McFarland said, “they’re going to be farther down on that list.”
UFA and Salt Lake County have programs encouraging homeowners to clear wildfire fuels from their properties.
“We’ve probably got 20% of the community who are proactive,” Tobey said.
Creating defensible space can be a lot of work. Tobey admits he has a list of things to do on his own property, including tree trimming, raking pine needles and installing wire mesh roof vents that prevent embers from entering his attic.
“One of the things that’s at play here,” Tobey said, “is that people move into an environment like this because they want to be in the mountains, they want to be in the trees. They don’t want to take down the large tree that’s just outside the door.”
Rocky Mountain Power has been trimming trees around electrical lines. The utility is prepared to shut off power to Emigration Canyon on hot, windy days in order to prevent a spark that could ignite a fire.
But Tobey said there are second-home owners and absentee land holders who have let properties get overrun with trees and vegetation.
What’s the scenario that most concerns Tobey?
“A fire starting somewhere low in the canyon on a high-wind day,” Tobey said, “late in the summer with dried fuel abundant, low moisture, low humidity, high temperate, high winds. That fire will spread very, very fast.”
Crofts thinks some kind of fire is inevitable.
“Catastrophic? I think that’s probably avoidable,” he said.