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$600 million in claims filed against Forest Service over 2018 Pole Creek Fire, flooding

Posted at 6:13 PM, Sep 04, 2020

SPANISH FORK CANYON, Utah — Thirty people have filed a claim against the U.S. Forest Service, asking for $600 million.

All claimants said their property was damaged from flooding after the "Pole Creek" and "Bald Mountain" wildfires burned the area surrounding their property.

Jay Birch’s family has ranched on land in Spanish Fork Canyon since the 1960s.

Two years after the Pole Creek Fire burned nearby, Birch’s property is unrecognizable.

Instead of sod, dirt and sand remain on the upper portion of his ranch — 1,000 acres that he can no longer ranch on.

"It’s heartbreaking for my family," said Birch. “You can’t put it into words.”

Birch has personally ranched the property for 45 years.

Before the fire, Birch had 300 head of cattle running on the land and could harvest 2,500 bales of hay for the season.

“I don’t know if I have enough years in me left to have something for my grandchildren,” said Birch.

In 2018, the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires burned close to Birch’s property.

Birch said the Forest Service came onto his ranch and burned the hillsides surrounding it to create a fire lane to stop the flames from reaching his property.

“I could not come up here at all,” said Birch. “They told me that I couldn’t, even though I was the land owner and had cattle here.”

His cattle and hay survived the fires, but that wasn’t what ruined Birch’s ranch — it was the rain that came afterward.

Flood water rose up to the trees where a water line is still visible.

In some places, Birch said the water was more than 50 feet deep.

“The back burns did actually more damage to us because of the flooding,” said Birch.

Debris has blocked Birch’s reservoir — the only water source for his irrigation system.

Birch was only able to salvage 70 hay bails back in 2018. Now, he can’t grow anything.

There’s still equipment on his property that Birch can’t find after it was carried away in the flood water.

What once was a working ranch and a favorite spot for the family now hurts to look at.

David Wittekiend, the forest supervisor for the Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said the fire by Birch’s property was controlled.

“We were building a larger box around,” said Wittekiend. “We were also taking into account firefighter safety.”

At the time, Wittekiend said both fires burned in areas with long standing trees.

“That’s the top five largest death and injury to firefighters,” said Wittekiend.

The decision to burn the area surrounding Birch’s ranch, though, is still felt every day since 2018.

“Raising your family here and asking for help? There’s no help,” said Birch.

Now that the claim has been filed, it is out of the forest service’s hands as a claim agency will review it.