Story by MARK SAAL • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK
Seven months after the Uintah Fire roared through southern Weber County, officials say they hope the lessons learned will help temper future problems where urban and wild places meet.
On the morning of Sept. 5, 2017, a fast-moving wildfire — sparked by a downed power line and driven by high winds and extremely dry conditions — burned 619 acres in and around the communities of Uintah and South Weber. More than 900 people were evacuated, and three homes in the unincorporated Uintah Highlands neighborhood were destroyed. In total, the fire damaged or destroyed 18 structures. The estimate of damages was around $1 million.
“I’ve seen fast-moving fires, but not in an urban environment like that,” Capt. Rick Cooper of the Weber Fire District, said. “That was a career fire for a lot of guys.”
Cooper, who is the Weber County fire warden and a wildland fire specialist, said there were a few “silver linings” showing in the clouds of last year’s disaster.
“It was a bad fire, but a lot of positives came out of it,” he said. “It sparked a lot of concern, and a lot of interest — countywide — in creating good, defensible spacing and landscaping.”
The areas along the foothills where nature and civilization meet are what fire professionals call the “wildland-urban interface.” Cooper says the incident made more residents proactive about removing potential wildfire fuel around their homes.
Last fall, the county provided dumpsters in the Uintah Highlands area for residents to clear out the deadwood that might fuel future fires, according to Peterson. Lance Peterson, the emergency manager for Weber County, said the community response to the bins was “great.”
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The county will also hold a fire prevention fair from 6 to 8 p.m. April 26 at the Washington Heights Church, 1770 E. 6200 South, South Ogden. The free event will feature games, fire engines, booths, demonstrations and more. The fair is open to all, though Cooper said it will be of particular interest to those living in the wildland-urban interface since it will include planting information for creating natural buffers from wildfires.
For the most part, Peterson says, residents are recovering from the Uintah Fire.
“Two of the three homes, they’ve started rebuilding them,” he said. “I did hear a rumor that one of them wasn’t going to rebuild and would be selling the land.”
Chief Marc Sacco of the Uintah Fire Department said most of the visual reminders of the wildfire have long since disappeared.
“Other than a slight blackening of the (white block letter) ‘U’ on the mountain, there’s little visible evidence,” Sacco said. “Things are starting to green up a bit.”
Remaining concerns for Sacco include less visible effects. A weakened root systems on the side of the mountain, for example, could result in a landslide.
“It just depends on how much of it got into the root systems, in terms of whether we’ll see land movement when we do finally get some rain,” he said.
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The Uintah fire was fast-moving and driven by extremely high winds, so Sacco said landslides are a possibility, but he’s not particularly worried.
“It wouldn’t have been hot enough and in an area long enough to establish itself into the root system,” he said.
The other concern, according to Sacco, is that while some of the vegetation was killed, most of it was only scorched.
“It still exists, and is still ready to burn at the drop of a match — or a downed power line,” he said.
Sacco predicts that his and other fire departments will see an increase in false alarms this summer as open-burn permits are exercised and people see smoke in the area.
“The community will be a little bit jumpy this year,” he said. “And that will necessitate a slightly more aggressive eye on the part of fire departments.”
Uintah Mayor Lawrence Flitton said the community is rebounding well. The Utah Department of Transportation recently removed a number of blackened trees along the highway there, and the hillsides have recovered so quickly the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources nixed its original plan of reseeding the area to prevent erosion or landslides.
“Now, seven months later, there’s not much talk about the fire around here, to tell you the truth,” Flitton said.
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At an open house last fall, representatives from Valley Nursery in Uintah offered residents in the burn area a 20 percent discount on plantings to replace those lost in the fire.
“My dad grew up in Uintah, I live in Uintah,” Daniel Combe, the nursery’s owner, said. “These are our friends and neighbors that we’ve known forever and a day. This is a tragedy, and we’re just trying to help.”
Combe said he didn’t get many residents taking him up on the offer last fall, but he expects that will change now that spring is here.
He also points out that, in general, these were higher-income homes that were affected by the fire.
“A lot of their yards were individually designed by landscape architects or landscape contractors,” Combe said. “It’s not just two trees and a lawn that we’re talking about here.”
As for what was learned by the firefighting community, Cooper said the biggest takeaway was the importance of eliminating communication glitches — not just countywide communications, but out-of-county as well.
Cooper said they had a “bottleneck” on communication during the fire, but that the affected agencies were able to work through it.
“We came out of that fire and actually revised and developed new communication plans for all countywide incidents — hazardous materials, mass casualty, active shooter, large structure fires, zombie apocalypse, whatever,” Cooper said. “If anything came out of the Uintah incident, it’s that we’ll be better prepared for the next incident.”
Cooper said many other agencies stepped up to the plate, offering “overwhelming support.” Cooper said he received phone calls from as far away as Provo offering to send resources and Unified Fire Authority in Salt Lake City had six engines at the ready.
He said he could “spend three hours” explaining all of the things he would have done differently, but all in all, the outcome was better than what might have been expected.
“Any property loss I take personally,” Cooper said. “But thank God we didn’t hurt anybody or kill anybody. There were a lot of silver linings in that fire.”