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Utah’s wildfire risk is high this summer. And cities know that includes them, too

Assistant Chief Shaun Hirst outside the Orem Fire Department administrative building on July 2, 2024.
Tilda WIlson
/
KUER
Assistant Chief Shaun Hirst outside the Orem Fire Department administrative building on July 2, 2024.

After Utah’s wet winter, grass, bush and weeds grew thick in the spring. Now that the hot, dry summer season is here, that’s led to high wildfire risk.

“We're not talking out in federal, natural forest area or anything like that. We're talking right up to where urban housing [is],” said Kelly Bird, public information officer for the Unified Fire Authority.

The agency is the largest in Utah and it covers 15 municipalities as well as all of Salt Lake County. Bird said they’ve been hard at work knocking down “potential fuels that would increase fire risk.”

They also reach out to people in high-risk communities in the foothills and Herriman, and encourage them to create “a safe ring around their home so that, if fire does happen to spread, that they've got a barrier.”

In emergencies, the fire department works with city emergency coordinators like David Ulibarri in Eagle Mountain. He’s lived in the area for 18 years and said a lot of their increased risk comes from new homes built into areas that are already at high risk for wildfire.

When he moved in there were “around 8,000 people.” Now there are nearly 57,000, “and it’s not stopping anytime soon.” He said that only “adds to the wildfire threat because we have more homes in areas that we didn't [have] the year before.”

Ulibarri works to make sure residents are prepared in case of an emergency. This includes making sure people are prepared to evacuate in case of a wildfire.

He said an evacuation is “the last thing we ever want to do because it is a lot of work and it can be a nightmare. But if we do it, it's for a good reason.”

And there are multiple reasons an evacuation might be necessary.

“It's not always because we think your home's going to catch fire. A lot of times it's as much air quality and visibility as it is anything else.”

In May, Ulibarri worked with local Eagle Scout Emma McWethy to distribute instructions for creating a go-bag to have ready in the event of a wildfire.

Eagle Mountain resident Emma McWethy worked with emergency manager David Ulibarri to distribute information about being prepared for a wildfire evacuation.
Tilda Wilson
/
David Ulibarri
Eagle Mountain resident Emma McWethy worked with emergency manager David Ulibarri to distribute information about being prepared for a wildfire evacuation.

Orem’s fire department has also assessed the fire risk to homes in the area with a survey. Assistant Chief Shaun Hirst said this will help them find older homes with things like wood shake shingles.

“Those are highly vulnerable at this point when they've sat on the roof for that long. They can very easily start with these aerial fireworks we have allowed in Utah.”

They’re also working on mitigation efforts around the outskirts of Utah Lake.

In addition to harming native plants, many invasive species like phragmites catch on fire “really, really hot and fast.” Orem firefighters worked to remove excess vegetation in some areas to prevent that from happening.

There have already been wildfires in the state this year, but Hirst said the peak of fire season won’t be until August or September when the state is at its driest.

Corrected: July 3, 2024 at 12:30 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story misidentified the Unified Fire Authority as the United Fire Authority.
Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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