Utah is one of the most wildfire prone states in the country. A 2021 Hazard Mitigation Study for Utah, Wasatch, and Summit Counties determined that an extreme wildfire event is the ”most likely” catastrophic event to happen in Summit County, Utah, an area which supports the headwaters of eight major watersheds, serving 1.2 million downstream water users. With increased development within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and an ongoing wildfire crisis, jurisdictions within Summit County, and at the State and Federal level, have adopted preparedness policies and mitigation strategies to address the public safety concern.
Fire Mitigation Projects - Fuel Treatments
Consistent with local planning objectives and nationally accepted best practices, the development of fire mitigation projects, also known as fuel treatments, removes overgrown, overcrowded, and dead vegetation that presents substantial fire hazards. These treatments help reduce the risk of a catastrophic wildfire, can encourage diverse plant growth, and promote wildfire- resilient landscapes. Treatments help enhance and provide for safer fire suppression efforts while also protecting communities.
Thinning, piling, and the subsequent burning of piles, or “pile burning” is a widely used and cost-effective component of fuel treatment when physical removal or chipping of the material is not feasible due to terrain or access. When used as a prevention method, studies show that burning in a controlled environment has significantly fewer air quality impacts than an uncontrolled wildfire event.
What is Pile Burning, and When is it Used?
Pile burning is the ignition of piled material as a result of fuel treatments. It is utilized in steep terrain and isolated areas when removal or chipping is not feasible. Crews typically construct piles from the cut vegetation material with the intention of later burning the piles when conditions allow. Certain criteria must be met for piles to be burned, such as:
- Conditions support smoke dispersal;
- Snow or other precipitation exists in the burn area and in the pile content; and
- Adequate tools and staffing are available.
These variables are included in a burn plan that is reviewed by the appropriate permitting agencies before implementation. All pile burns in Summit County are conducted within the permit requirements set forth in the State of Utah. Benefits associated with the practice of pile burning include:
- Efficient method to remove hazardous fuels from a steep terrain or an isolated treatment area; and
- Cost-effective, compared to removing or chipping
What Regulations are in Place to Ensure the Safety of Pile Burning?
Pile burning is allowed under the authority of the Summit County Fire Warden and local Fire District, and is regulated by the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ). The DAQ, administers the Clean Air Act which, is the federal regulation that ensures that the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are met. A common pollutant found in wildfire smoke is PM2.5, a small particulate pollutant that can be inhaled and reach the bloodstream. Burns are regulated and monitored by the DAQ for compliance with NAAQS. In Utah, three State Administrative Code rule sets govern most aspects of burning and prescribed fire. These are commonly referred to as “General Burning” (R307-202), “Smoke Management” (R307-204), and “Prescribed Burning” (R307-240).
- General Burning guidelines are followed for a basic pile burn. General burns are typically utilized for private agricultural landowners and homeowners with slash piles. An open burn permit from County or Municipal fire officials is required, depending on jurisdiction and time of year. For good smoke dispersal, a clearing index forecast of 500 or greater is required from the National Weather Service. Notification of a pile burn to the local fire authority by the burn practitioner is required. In Summit County, this can be done using the prescribed burn disclosure and a call to the Summit County Public Safety Dispatch.
- Larger pile burn projects carry additional requirements governed by Smoke Management, R307-204. This rule set is typically used by Federal, State, and Local agencies, land managers, and prescribed fire professionals for larger and ongoing projects. These pile burns require a prescribed fire plan with a site-specific burn prescription, which lists the environmental parameters under which the burn would take place, and require a series of four forms to be submitted through the Utah Interagency Smoke Coordinator to the DAQ, as defined in the Utah Smoke Management Plan.
Wildfires represent a viable threat to both life and property for the residents of
Summit County and specifically those living within the WUI. The 2021 Parleys Canyon Fire, and its potential adverse impacts on the greater Park City area, is a testament to the importance of wildfire mitigation strategies. As wildfire risk and forest health concerns are realized, it is anticipated that fuels management practices will increase throughout Summit County and surrounding areas. While fuel treatments in the WUI aim to aggressively change fire behavior and reduce its impacts on life and property, no treatment will ever completely eliminate the risk of a wildfire. Pile burning, as a mitigation method, is an accepted practice aimed at reducing the harmful effects on landscapes and communities from high-intensity, uncontrolled wildfires.
How can I learn more about Pile Burning or Upcoming Plans?
Information about wildfire risk, defensible space, and large burn projects may be found on the Utah Fire Info and Utah Smoke Management websites. Additional jurisdictional websites are provided below.