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Summit County to pursue $50 million in watershed protection and fire mitigation grants, needs public’s help

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Utah DWR
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There are 400,000 acres in Summit County at high or extreme risk of wildfire.

Wildfire is at the top of many people’s minds during the summer months and Summit County wants to secure tens of millions of dollars in funding for major fire mitigation projects.

Summit County says there are 400,000 acres of land in the county identified as being at high or extreme risk of wildfire. That means there’s a lot of fire mitigation work to do in local forests in order to meaningfully reduce the risk of a disastrous wildfire in the area.

According to a staff report at this week’s joint Summit County and Park City council meeting, Summit County will be applying for $50 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to address that need.

The money would be provided through the agency’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, program, which encourages and helps fund hazard mitigation projects across the country. Sonoma County in California recently received a similar grant for wildfire mitigation, and Summit County Public Lands Manager Jessica Kirby said she has been working with Sonoma officials on crafting the county’s application.

Kirby said FEMA has indicated that the county’s project is in line with what the agency is looking to help with, but the county also needs the community’s help in the form of letters of support.

“As many [letters] as we can get is going to make us look better," Kirby said. "Especially if it’s from individual community members, elected officials, businesses, the ski resorts. If we can get our livelihood involved in this discussion it will just make our projects stronger.” 

Kirby said the county will work on support letter templates and make them available to the public soon.

If awarded, the $50 million would be spent over three years and would be a 70% match by FEMA, meaning Summit County and its partners would be responsible for $15 million.

On Wednesday, Park City councilors indicated support for partnering with the county in wildfire fuel reduction and watershed restoration projects.  

Recent county estimates put the price tag to treat just the forest around the Weber River headwaters at nearly $200 million. But Park City Fire District Fire Marshal Mike Owens said the amount of work that $50 million would pay for would make a significant impact on mitigation throughout the county.

“The grant money would be incredible, it’s going to help us take care of things that are either communities don’t have the money to handle it themselves, or we need that money to assist on the public land," he said. "It’s a big deal.” 

Owens added that the work individual homeowners do on their properties is also essential to mitigating the risk of wildfire.

In a place as dry and fire-prone as Utah, Kirby said it’s important to understand that it’s impossible to eliminate the risk of wildfire.

“Fire will always be part of our landscape, it’s always going to be part of our system," she said. "But making sure that we’re ready for it and mitigating for those impacts that come is really the goal.”

A draft of the county’s grant proposal is due in August and the final application will be submitted next January.

Sean Higgins covers all things Park City and is the Saturday Weekend Edition host at KPCW. Sean spent the first five years of his journalism career covering World Cup skiing for Ski Racing Media here in Utah and served as Senior Editor until January 2020. As Senior Editor, he managed the day-to-day news section of skiracing.com, as well as produced and hosted Ski Racing’s weekly podcast. During his tenure with Ski Racing Media, he was also a field reporter for NBC Sports, covering events in Europe.