Photo Credit: Utah’s new wildfire policy will stimulate more wildfire mitigation activities, such as the creation of additional shaded fuel breaks like the one shown in this picture. Photo by Jason Curry, State of Utah, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands

Written by: Jennifer Hansen, Utah Wildland Urban Interface Program Coordinator, State of Utah, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands

All over the country, FAC practitioners and policy makers alike are discussing a critical solution to the wildland-urban interface problem: a paradigm shift in which local governments take the lead in risk reduction activities and prevention measures (such as development restrictions and city/county ordinances). Taking the lead in Utah, the State of Utah, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL) recently ensured that corresponding legislation was approved, taking our state one step closer to such a shift.

FFSL is “responsible for fire management and the conservation of forest, watershed, and other lands – Reciprocal agreements for fire protection.” Over the last decade, FFSL has entered into cooperative agreements with county governments to assist with the cost of wildfire suppression, if the county paid an “insurance premium” that was based on the average cost of wildfire suppression over a period of 10 years, minus the high and low years. Although this system worked in some circumstances, wildfires since 2010 have really brought to light the missing link: municipal governments that have vast areas of incorporated wildlands were not able to participate in the wildfire suppression cost assistance system. After three years of collaborative efforts with county partners and municipal service providers, FFSL helped ensure that Utah’s 2016 legislature unanimously passed a comprehensive wildland fire policy.

Piles prepped for burning in a residential area located in Southwest Utah.

Completing home assessments to influence homeowners to create survivable space is an activity that participating entities can do to “pay” their commitment value, as outlined in the new policy. Credit: Ken Ludwig, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands

Key Points of the Policy

  • This new wildland fire policy was developed collaboratively and involved statewide partners from the Utah Association of Counties, the Utah League of Cities and Towns, the Utah State Fire Chiefs Association, fire departments, various policy workgroups and many others.
  • Utah is shifting its wildfire strategy from reactive fire suppression to proactive risk reduction.
  • Every county, city and eligible special service fire district can opt in and become a participating entity that is annually evaluated through the Utah Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (UWRAP) to identify their wildfire risk per acre, which assigns a dollar value to medium and high-risk acres.
  • This value is then combined with the average cost of the past ten-years of wildfire suppression costs within the jurisdictional boundary of the participating entity. The resulting risk assessment and historic fire cost average are combined to provide an annual “participation commitment” for the participating entity. Here are two examples of risk assessments: Cedar City and Morgan County.
  • The commitment value cannot be paid to FFSL or the state; instead, it will be met by prevention, preparedness and mitigation work – which can be direct spending or in-kind efforts – accomplished at the local level. Here is our list of suggested qualifying activities.
  • An eligible entity that decides to opt into the new system will sign a five-year cooperative agreement with FFSL and create an Annual Accounting Statement detailing its participation commitment actions.
  • Every participating entity, with the help of local FFSL staff, must create a Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan (CWPP) within two years of opting into the system and keep that plan updated into the future. The CWPP will help participating entities prioritize the risk reduction projects for its jurisdiction and communities; here’s an example from Stockton.
  • In the instance of wildfire, the participating entity and its associated fire department will make the best possible initial attack (IA) to control and contain the fire early-on. Increasing wildfire preparedness through red card training and certification, annual firefighting refreshers and the purchase of equipment is encouraged in the policy as it will enhance IA capabilities.
  • If a wildfire escapes IA, the participating entity can authorize the Delegation of Fire Management Authority and Transfer of Fiscal Responsibility to the state. When this delegation occurs, the incident will be managed in a unified command environment and the extended attack cost of the fire will be paid through the State Suppression Fund.
  • The new policy became effective January 1, 2017.

To sum it up, the new system is based on the simple principle of risk reduction, wherein the state will pay the costs of large and extended attack wildland fire (“catastrophic fires”) in exchange for local governments implementing prevention, preparedness and mitigation actions that are proven to reduce the risk and cost of wildfires in the long run.

A "One Less Spark" outreach booth

Another way cooperating entities can meet their contribution value requirement is through prevention efforts like doing “One Less Spark” outreach. Credit: Shayne Ward, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands

FFSL first attempted to pass this new policy during the 2015 Legislative Session. However, a number of concerns were introduced and tabled it for a year. During that next year, FFSL developed a new approach that involved the creation of an internal wildfire policy team that met monthly and worked closely with our collaborating partners. This new strategy successfully moved the policy through the 2016 Legislative Session. FFSL had the privilege of working on the wildfire policy team in 2015 and 2016. Although it required a lot of time and involved walking away from many meetings with a fried brain, it was absolutely necessary for our agency to cooperate with our partners and better serve the citizens of Utah.

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