Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Cost Of Urban Sprawl: Localized Wildfires Damage Property And Keep Firefighters Hopping In Utah And Idaho

Update August 26th: Around 3:30 P.M. MDT, the Idaho Statesman revealed the likely origin of the fire, a malfunctioning power pole which may have overheated and or ignited itself. Updated information posted in green.

Fire season has kicked off in earnest in the Intermountain West. The least spark, combined with strong diurnal winds, can trigger a conflagration. A series of localized wildfires damaged property and kept firefighters busy in Draper and West Valley City in Utah, and in Boise, Idaho.

In Draper, KSL Channel 5 reports a wildfire of unknown origin began in Corner Canyon around noon on August 25th. In just a short period of time, the fire engulfed about 600 acres of dry grass and brush. As winds pushed the fire, flames began to threaten about 200 homes near 12500 South and 1300 East. Before firefighters arrived, neighbors banded together, sharing trailers, muscle and anything they could to help each other get out. Some homeowners left hoses and sprinklers running, hoping to protect their homes. An evacuation center was set up at Juan Diego High School for people who didn't have a place to go. Then firefighters responded, sending in aircraft to dump water and fire retardant. More than 100 firefighters were involved; officials ordered dozens of residents to evacuate.

Although the fire came within 100 yards of some homes, none caught fire, and there were no injuries or fatalities. By 8:00 P.M., the flames were pushed back far enough to allow residents to return to their homes. However, the fire is still burning, although the winds are currently light and variable. But the winds could change abruptly once again, and rough terrain hinders ground access. Additional story on this fire posted by the Deseret News.

In West Valley City, KSL Channel 5 reports that a fire began in a vacant field near 4400 South and 5900 West were workers were clearing brush. Fueled by strong southerly winds, the fire was driven towards a subdivision and traveled down the length of a fence separating homes from the field. The fence actually slowed the progress of the fire sufficiently to permit firefighters to stop it from spreading further, but some structures built too close to the fence were affected. Six homes were affected, one of them suffering serious damage. No injuries or fatalities were reported.

But the worst was reserved for a residential subdivision in the southeast part of Boise, Idaho. The Idaho Statesman reports that a fire now attributable to a malfunctioning power pole, fueled by strong winds, raced up a ridge, destroyed nine houses and damaged 10 others on August 25th. The fire began on BLM-owned land just south of East Amity Road north of East Sweetwater Drive shortly before 7 P.M.

As winds from a cold front gusted to more than 40 mph, the fire moved uphill to the south, toward Sweetwater Drive in the Oregon Trail Heights subdivision, where the first house caught fire at 7:10 p.m. The blaze quickly spread to a second house. Homes on both sides of Sweetwater burned. So did homes on Immigrant Pass Court, police said.

Meanwhile, a second line of fire moved east. A line of fire branched off the second line too, moving up the hill farther east, burning more houses. The eastbound fire line approached the Homestead Rim subdivision, where residents using equipment blocked the fire's advance before firefighters arrived.

The fire moved from a wildland area to trees to arborvitae shrubs in people's yards, and then to soffits on their houses. Many homes had cedar-shake roofs that caught fire quickly. About 50 homes were evacuated. Witnesses reported hearing several explosions, possibly from ammunition and propane tanks in burning homes. Thick, black smoke obliterated views. But it could have been worse; firefighters and residents attacked the blaze with water and brush-clearing equipment, stopping its advance before even more homes could burn. All available Boise firefighters and equipment responded; in addition, the Bureau of Land Management sent four engines and about 20 firefighters. A grand total of 41 fire crews were on the scene. Additional stories filed by KBCI Channel 2 and KTVB Channel 7 with video.

Update: According to a new story by the Idaho Statesman, fire investigators have now determined that the fire ignited around a power pole on land owned by Idaho Power in a desert field near the corner of East Amity and Holcomb roads. The pole, which was made of metal and wood, had a power supply going to it but investigators are still not sure exactly what went wrong and led to the ignition of the fire. The pole is melted but is being examined. This looks like a world-class fluke taking place at the worst possible time.

Unfortunately, this fire levied a human cost. Twelve Boise police officers and seven Meridian officers were treated for smoke inhalation, but all have been released. However, a newer Idaho Statesman story reveals that one body has been found in the ashes of a destroyed home. Yet another Statesman story further reveals the body has been tentatively identified as Mary Ellen Ryder, a linguistics professor at Boise State University.

While the West Valley City fire was a fluke, one of the common denominator in the Draper and Boise fires is urban sprawl. Residential subdivisions being built right up against wildland, providing only a minimal cushion when wildfires break out. Even if homeowners create defensible space, as some of the Boise homeowners did, strong winds can override it. At some point, we simply have to exercise some control on expansion into these wildlands.

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