Monday, August 31, 2009

Another U.S. Forest Service "Controlled Burn" Gets Out Of Control; Subdivision Evacuated After Wildfire Jumps Lines Near Scofield Reservoir In Utah

Update September 2nd: West Scofield wildfire now 20 percent contained, full containment expected by September 3rd. Updated post HERE.

On August 31st, 2009, KSL Channel 5 reports that another U.S. Forest Service "controlled burn" in Utah has escaped control, requiring the evacuation of a residential subdivision. A more detailed story has been published by the Salt Lake Tribune.

A prescribed burn west of Scofield Reservoir is now burning out of control and triggered the evacuation of a subdivision effective 2 A.M. on August 31st. Jason Curry with the Utah Division of Forestry says the fire started as a prescribed burn on June 28th to clear out trees ravaged by pine beetles and yes, to also reduce the risk of wildfire. The controlled burn had already cleared 2,500 acres, but Sunday night's unforecasted high winds caused the fire to jump control lines and burn spots outside the perimeter by midnight. Six families are known to have been displaced. Although there are dozens of houses in the subdivision, most of them are seasonal homes occupied primarily during the summer.

Map of Scofield Reservoir available HERE.

According to the latest estimate, the fire had burned about 80 acres but generated a number of new fire spots from blowing embers Sunday night. Fire officials are putting resources on each of the spot fires, primarily ones close to the homes. About 200 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the state and Carbon, Emery and Utah counties are now fighting the blaze. Two helicopters, including a Sikorsky Skycrane with a 20,000 pound carrying capacity, have been deployed to dump water from the reservoir on the fire. KSL news video embedded below:

Video Courtesy of

The U.S. Forest Service is not the sole villain here; this was a jointly-managed burn by both them and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Unlike the Mill Flat fire, this one was more aggressively managed. Earlier this year, officials met with the homeowners association to explain the burn program and assure them that their homes would be OK. However, Dale Green, a Holladay resident who owns a house in the subdivision, feels personally betrayed because he says that officials "guaranteed that this would not get out of control" (realistically, no such "ironclad" guarantee is possible).

Up-to-the-minute information on all of Utah's fires is available on the UtahFireInfo website, a link to which is now posted on my sidebar.

Some people are blaming homeowners for taking risks by building homes so close to public wildland, although the homes are built on private property. These homeowners know and accept the risk of naturally-triggered wildfires or fires cause by careless campers. What's questionable is whether or not they should also have to accept the risk of a wildfire caused by a "controlled burn".

What's clear from the spate of controlled burns getting out of control is that, if the controlled burn is to continue to be used as a tool for wildland management, it must be re-visited. Wildland managers must factor in the unreliability of forecasting terrain-induced wind episodes. They must also set boundaries of control further away from residential subdivisions so they have more wiggle room to act quickly if a controlled burn becomes a threat. Congress needs to get involved and perhaps hold hearings on this issue, so we can expose and resolve all the problems attendant to controlled burns.

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