With hundreds of homes and cabins built along the foothills and in the canyons, fire experts say Utah County is ripe for a fire like the 1990 Midway fire and 1991 Oakland disaster.
The only way to prevent such a fire is to make mountain structures more resistant to brush fires. But since most home and cabin owners don't do that, state and federal land officials want to make it mandatory. They are urging county commissioners to pass an ordinance that would require owners of mountain homes and cabins to fireproof their property."Right now at most places there is very little we could do except go in after the fire and clean up the mess," Utah County Fire Marshal Tom Wroe said.
In August 1990, a 3,000-acre blaze west of Midway destroyed 18 homes and cabins and killed two firefighters. In October 1991, a fire along the foothills of Oakland destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed 25 people. Both fires occurred in an area forest officials call "urban interface," the land where cities and wilderness mesh.
Utah County has homes in its "urban interface" at Sundance, Alpine, Woodland Hills, Hobble Creek Canyon, Southfork Canyon and Covered Bridge Canyon. Sundance alone has more than 120 homes and more than 40 condominiums. In the past few years brush fires near Alpine, Sundance and Woodland Hills came close to being Midway-type fires.
"In my opinion, there aren't enough fire engines in Utah and Salt Lake counties combined to fight a major fire at Sundance," Wroe said.
Wroe said homeowners have the ultimate responsibility of protecting and saving their homes during a fire, but many ignore fire safety rules. Typically, mountain home owners push oak brush out of the way during construction and allow it to grow back later for aesthetic reasons. He warns that those who do little to prepare for a brush fire can expect less help from fire-fighters when one happens.
"We'll take a chance to save a life, but we won't take a chance to save a home that's been built in an unsafe place and in an unsafe manner," he said.
The proposed fire protection ordinance would regulate emergency water supplies, recreational fires, roof coverings and other structural designs. Most importantly, the ordinance would require property owners to keep vegetation a specific distance from various structures. It also would regulate fuel and propane storage and would require proper disposal of flammable vegetation and material. Developers would be required to provide more than one road to mountain subdivisions for evacuation and firefighting purposes.
In the works since the Midway fire, the ordinance was developed by a committee comprising state, federal, private and local fire experts. It was recently approved by the Utah County Planning Commission and is endorsed by the Uinta National Forest, Bureau of Land Management and Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry. If the county adopts it, Wroe hopes cities will follow suit and adopt a similar ordinance.
"I think this is 20 years late," he said. "This is something we should have had in place at the inception of Sundance and Woodland Hills."
County commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance Wednesday, July 21, at 10 a.m. in the Utah County Commission Chambers.