HERRIMAN — Emergency federal funding is on its way to Herriman to protect against flooding and mudflows from a mountain scarred by last week's fire. But a big question mark hangs over a much larger pile of money, an estimated $5 million already spent to fight the fire.
Crews may begin the erosion-control work on the blackened hillsides as soon as Friday, thanks to a $440,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Herriman City spokeswoman Nicole Martin applauded the federal grant.
"It enables us to focus on our No. 1 goal, which is safety for our residents," she said. The city will match the federal grant with $133,000 in local contributions.
The blaze scorched thousands of acres, much of it on hillsides above residential neighborhoods in Herriman. Some higher elevation areas were baked so badly that water will run right off, according to hydrologist Brian McInerny of the National Weather Service. He said the big threat is three-quarters of an inch of rain in an hour.
If there was negligence found, we would not be able to use our program to reimburse the state for its costs.
–FEMA spokesman Derek Jensen.
"The rain comes down and starts moving little bits of soil on the upper drainage," McInerny said. "That bumps into bigger pieces of soil and within a second or two the whole hillside starts moving."
The city will attack the problem on an emergency basis and officials expect to spend the entire federal grant before winter. The work will include "reseeding efforts up on the mountains as well as erosion-control preventative measures," Martin said, "and that will include silt-fences, check dams and debris basins."
A separate issue is the cost already incurred by local, state and federal entities when they battled the fire last week. No one has added up all the bills yet, but state officials believe the firefighting cost may be as high as $5 million. That would include state and local expenses for everything from aircraft to traffic cops.
At the peak of the fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised to pay 75 percent of the firefighting costs. But that payment is now in question.
"If there was negligence found, we would not be able to use our program to reimburse the state for its costs," said FEMA spokesman Derek Jensen.
Even though the Utah National Guard has taken responsibility for the fire, Jensen said FEMA is waiting on official word of a cause. According to Martin, that determination will be made by the state fire marshal and the Utah Attorney General's Office.
The day after the fire began, the Utah National Guard's commanding general publicly apologized and took the blame for the fire. It's believed to have started from sparks touched off by machine-gun practice. That training exercise took place at Camp Williams in the face of "red-flag" wind warnings.
If the National Guard is found negligent, state and local officials say they would expect the guard to reimburse local and state agencies for the firefighting costs.
"I have no doubt that they would be responsive to a reimbursement request from the city," Martin said, "if that's determined to be the cause of the fire."
She praised the National Guard for the way it has already stepped up to cover costs for residents. At a temporary claims center in front of Herriman City Hall, the National Guard has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to residents. In the first four days, the National Guard paid 329 separate claims ranging from property damage to evacuation expenses such as restaurant meals and hotel bills. The Guard even reimbursed one man for livestock feed that burned up in the fire.
Guard spokesman Col. Hank McIntire said the claims process is fast and easy. "A person can go to the claim center, make their claim, get it processed, adjudicated and paid, right there at the very same time," McIntire said.
In addition to the state investigation, the National Guard is doing an internal probe to figure out how the fire started and whether policies at Camp Williams need to be changed.
A team from the U.S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., is also coming to investigate the cause of the wildfire.
The blaze destroyed three homes in Herriman prompted the evacuation of over 1,600 more.
Herriman will hold a community meeting Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Herriman High School to give an update on the fire and where things go from here. The National Guard and Sheriff Jim Winder will attend.