What Utahns can do right now to be wildfire ready
This is the peak of the wildfire season for parts of Utah.
Communities across the state face heightened risk because of expanding development and increasingly dry vegetation. KUER spoke to residents and agencies in Utah to find out how they’re preparing, and how you can protect yourself.
The space between human development and the natural environment is known as the wildland urban interface. As the state grows, that area is being further encroached on by people.
“Our capability to provide utilities to homes has expanded, so where we build our homes has expanded. As that happens and communities are developing all over the area, the region, all over [the West] much further up in the mountains,” said Kathryn McMullin, emergency manager for Summit County.
Around 8,000 residents in her county were evacuated in August 2021 because of the Parleys Canyon Fire off of Interstate 80. Ryan Cutter was one of them. He and his wife packed up important documents and irreplaceable belongings. Then they did something he said they should have done sooner.
“After that, it was doing a quick survey and with the phone taking video of everything in the house for potential insurance purposes, proof of all of that stuff,” he said. “I know of some people that have lost their houses and have had insurance issues and they've come forth with video of every door, every closet, everything in the house. … And the insurance companies paid out to whatever the policy said pretty quickly after that.”
Create defensible space
Besides taking inventory inside and outside of homes, McMullin encourages people to take stock of their property and make sure there’s defensible space.
“You want no dead weeds, no firewood stack within five feet of your home. Make sure that zero to five feet around your home is really clear,” she said. “[Also], home hardening is making sure your building or upgrading to noncombustible materials.”
The immediate zone around a home is the area most vulnerable to embers and most important to clear, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Beyond that, it recommends landscaping be well maintained up to 30 feet away and to keep trees spaced and the area clear of dead vegetation up to 200 feet from a home. Homeowners associations and local municipalities can help people create Firewise landscaping.
Cutter also works as a wildland firefighter and has seen first-hand the good defensible space can do. He said it doesn’t just protect homes, it also helps firefighters, who can move around an area more easily and work the fire from different angles.
McMullin said response agencies are doing what they can to get ready, taking time to think critically about how to prepare, respond and recover from wildfires. She recommends people do the same thing because preparing their properties and evacuation plans ahead of time makes everything smoother in fast moving situations.
Regardless of where someone lives, make sure homeowner’s and renter’s insurance is current, said Jon Pike, the commissioner for the Utah Insurance Department.
“Update that coverage,” he said. “With the increasing costs of housing, values have gone up and we need to make sure that we can replace our damaged home or property if we have the terrible event of a fire.”
For renters specifically, landlords often have insurance on the building itself, not individuals’ possessions. He encourages people to find something affordable that covers similar things to homeowners like possessions.
Pike said his department is working on having mobile offices at the scenes of wildfires to more easily connect people to insurance agencies. He said there can be bad actors who try to get people to quickly agree to contracts and deals, in the case of damage.
“I recommend that you contact your agent or your insurance company directly,” Pike said. “They might have contracts with preferred vendors that would help keep your costs lower.”
Make a plan for evacuation orders
In the unfortunate case of evacuation, it’s helpful to have an exit plan ready ahead of time, said Michael Smauldon, the executive director of the northern Utah and southwest Wyoming Red Cross.
“Create a go bag, have that ready to go with the critical information like important paperwork, ID, medications, change of clothes, something that you can have up to three days or even possibly longer,” he said. “Then stuff for your pets because people forget about their pets.”
He said this saves time scrambling for stuff before leaving.
If someone is evacuated for a wildfire, Red Cross shelters will likely be available. Smauldon said the organization is recruiting and training volunteers and working with local agencies and emergency managers to have plans for when incidents happen.
If an evacuation order is issued, Smauldon stressed the importance of leaving in a timely manner, because it’s possible to rebuild a home, not a life.