After screening the documentary “Era of Megafires” Wednesday, a panel of emergency responders from Park City, Summit County and Wasatch County discussed how they’re preparing for longer fire seasons and bigger fires along the Wasatch Back’s wildland-urban interface.
A big draw for residents along the Wasatch Back is the proximity to the natural environment—the trees, shrubs and meadows. But what do you do when a wildfire lights up the greenery and spreads into the neighborhood? Park City Emergency Manager Mike McComb says be ready.
“Have a plan," McComb said. "And I would follow that up with one of my favorite sayings. One of my former commanding officers said, 'hope is not a plan.'”
Panelists stressed the importance of being proactive rather than reactive when disaster strikes. On Park City’s part, that means clearing out some of the brush and excess vegetation in open spaces, especially ones near to residences. For homeowners, Park City Fire Chief Paul Hewitt asks them to create a 30-foot defensible space around the house, protecting the home and firefighters in the case of a wildfire.
“Take the responsibility to be part of this equation, and that equation is to make sure you don't have any gas cans next to your house," Hewitt said. "Make sure your house is what we call hardened, so do a 360—you can call the Park City Fire District, too—and you can go to our website. That will give you some helpful ideas and a lot of things that you can do to make the area more wildfire-safe.”
One resident expressed concern over getting people out of town in case of emergency, citing the standstill traffic Park City experiences during its peak event season. Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter says the traffic situation during major events differs from during an emergency because guests are actively driving into town then. In an emergency, Carpenter says ingress on the main corridors would be shut down.
"During a fire, there won’t be anybody coming into the city, other than essential workers," Carpenter said. "Then on those exiting, we’ll open up the egress leaving the city, and we’ll split those routes on 224 and 248. Where we don't have traffic coming in, we can open the lights."
Park City’s Traffic Control Center will also play a role in an emergency evacuation. Carpenter says the Center, which is located within the police department, allows staff to communicate with the Utah Department of Transportation directly to adjust traffic lights on S.R. 224 and 248.
"We can't personally change those lights," Carpenter said. "But in an event, we can pull somebody in to operate that and contact DOT, to where we can control the lights leaving the town."
A representative from the Heber-Kamas Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service alluded to upcoming work on local forests to prepare the land for fires, prescribed or natural. Park City Planning Director Bruce Erickson says a newly formed Park City Forestry Board will assist in that effort.
For more information about emergency preparedness, visit bereadyparkcity.org.