As southwestern Utah grows, so does the wildfire risk

Flames burn very close to homes in the New Harmony Heights area of southern Utah near St. George, June 27, 2005.

Flames burn very close to homes in the New Harmony Heights area of southern Utah near St. George, June 27, 2005. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Southern Utah's Washington County is growing at breakneck speed. St. George is the fastest-growing metro area in the country, according to Census data.

That label comes with typical growing pains — outdated infrastructure, more traffic, questions about resource allocation. But another consequence of growth is increased wildfire risk.

As the Mountain West grapples with unprecedented growth, developers are creeping further into the foothills and mountains, building in some of the region's most fire-prone terrain. Some of the most desirable places to live — private mountain property with trees and vegetation — are also the most risky.

"Because of the drought conditions, and the growth in that region, that's one of our highest risk areas," said Julie Murphy, the statewide wildfire risk reduction coordinator under the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands. Almost 25% of Washington County remains in extreme drought, with the entire county currently in severe drought.

According to a new report from the nonprofit research group First Street Foundation, roughly half of all addresses in the continental U.S. face some kind of risk from wildfires.

Some of the most at-risk communities, the report notes, are in Utah. Consider this:

  • Over 5% of all the properties in Utah have at least a 1% chance of experiencing a wildfire, the highest risk of any U.S. state.
  • Around 787,100 Utah properties, or 57% of the state, have at least 0.03% likelihood of being in a wildfire this year. That translates to a 1% chance over 30 years.
  • Of those, 327,600 properties, or 24% of the state, have a 0.2% chance of experiencing a wildfire. That translates to a 6% chance over 30 years.
  • In Washington County, at least 93% of the properties have at least a 6% chance of experiencing a wildfire in the next 30 years.
  • An estimated 94,900 properties in Washington County have a 6% chance of experiencing a wildfire in 30 years, compared to 77,000 in Utah County, 35,100 in Salt Lake County, 25,300 in Iron County and 21,500 in Tooele County.
  • Utah has had 657 wildfires larger than 1,000 acres between 1984 and 2020, totaling 5,773,400 cumulative acres burned. Currently, 17,100 properties are in the boundaries of these past fires, with an additional 1,358,800 properties within 20 miles.

The metrics used in First Street's report include nearby combustible fuels, previous weather and fire patterns, and climate change.

For rapidly expanding Washington County, or any of the countless pasture-turned-subdivision communities in the Mountain West, it's a simple equation: "The more homes you have in a rural area, or in an area that has fuel that can burn, the higher probability that those homes will burn," said Murphy.

Labeled high-risk in the First Street report, then profiled in a story by the New York Times, is Dammeron Valley, a quaint yet growing community in Washington County where single-acre lots sell for as much as $300,000 and homes soar above $1 million.

Yet the data shows that Dammeron Valley is an increasingly risky place to live — all of the community's properties have at least a 1% chance of being exposed to a wildfire, increasing to 5% by 2052.

But what isn't detailed in the Times story, experts say, is what amounts to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, the state has spent on fuel mitigation and public outreach in Washington County.

"It's been ridiculous, in a good way, the amount of money and effort that we've put into not only Dammeron but the highway corridor, to make sure that fuels around those communities are treated," said John Schmidt with the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands.

Schmidt, who spent 25 years as a forester in the timber industry, then 19 years as a fire and fuels specialist based in southwest Utah, specializes in fire prevention on private land. He's treated thousands of acres for landowners in communities like Dammeron Valley, providing fire assessments, trimming trees, chipping fuels and creating breaks.

In addition to physically working to prevent fire, both federal and state agencies have unleashed a public awareness campaign, coordinating with local governments and leaning into what Schmidt says is key to preventing wildfires — "community activism."

"There's signs saying 'Be prepared,' 'Defensible space,' and 'Are you fire ready?' When we do projects in the community, we'll put a sign up that says 'Is your house fire safe?'" he said. "I'm hard pressed to think that somebody that came from, say, Boise or California, had no idea that wildfire is in effect here. Just drive up and down Interstate 15 and look at the fire scars."

Schmidt pointed to Dammeron Valley as a textbook example of community activism. During a meeting hosted by the division, officials were approached by a man, originally from England, who had a film studio in his home. He filmed Schmidt's team trimming high-risk trees, conducting prescribed burns and creating fuel breaks, then produced a DVD that he distributed to every new resident in Dammeron Valley.

He's what Schmidt called a "spark plug" — community members who lead out on wildfire activism.

"There's people like that in all these communities and we just try and find them," Schmidt said.

But as Washington County and its neighbor to the north, Iron County, continue to grow, the communities that inch their way into picturesque, juniper and pinyon pine-laden hills are literally playing with fire. For some of these new developments, experts like Schmidt say it's not if, but when.

"Those threats are increasing and as we're spreading out further it's inevitable that it's probably going to result in wildfires," he said. "In some communities, I don't know how we will ever get around that."

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Utah wildfiresUtah housingUtah growth and populationUtah droughtSouthern Utah
Kyle Dunphey
Kyle Dunphey is a reporter on the Utah InDepth team, covering a mix of topics including politics, the environment and breaking news. A Vermont native, he studied communications at the University of Utah and graduated in 2020. Whether on his skis or his bike, you can find Kyle year-round exploring Utah’s mountains.

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