Uintah fire costs start trickling in, will skyrocket as numbers are crunched

Friday , September 08, 2017 - 5:25 PM

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

WEBER COUNTY — It could take days or weeks to tally all the costs associated with the wildfire that rampaged across 619 acres in the Uintah Highlands area this past week. 

But initial data posted on the National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC) website Thursday morning logged $273,000 in operational costs “to date” for the Uintah fire, which sparked around 7:15 a.m. Tuesday from a downed power line and quickly raged out of control due to high winds, low humidity, hot temperatures and plenty of dried fuel.

By Thursday morning, 183 personnel, one “hotshot” crew, 32 engines and four helicopters had been deployed by federal, state and local agencies to rein in the blaze. About 300 homes were at risk, and close to 1,000 people had been evacuated. Smoke hung in the air Tuesday and Wednesday, obscuring the normally prominent Wasatch Mountains and producing unusually vivid sunsets and moonrise.

All totaled, 13 structures had been lost, among them three expensive homes that were basically destroyed. Sasha Clark, communications consultant for Weber County, estimated structure damages of at least $1 million.

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According to Uintah Mayor Lawrence Flitton, some of those structural losses happened in lower Uintah after the fire jumped Highway 89. Those included two travel trailers (estimated at $40,000), one hay trailer (estimated at $7,000), and the back side of a garage, along with nearby items that incurred about $15,000 in damage.

Kim Osborn, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, described “hotshots” as a highly specialized crew trained to have additional skills to go into steeper, more tough terrain. 

Osborn said they’re required to track costs on a daily basis, including personnel, ground and air equipment, fire retardant and even water. 

Some of the water strategically dropped by aircraft and helicopters on the Uintah fire came from a homeowner’s swimming pool, a residential pond and a nearby Weber Basin pond, Osborn said. 

By Friday morning, the Weber Fire District tweeted the fire was 85 percent contained, and 10 engines and 50 personnel still remained in the area to keep an eye on remaining hot spots.

“For public and firefighter safety, we are requesting the public to please stay out of the Uintah Highlands neighborhood unless you are a resident,” the district said in a statement Friday. “The roads in this neighborhood are tight, steep with blind corners. Fire fighters and fire engines will still be working around the homes for the next few days to ensure the fire is 100 percent out.”

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Brandon Thueson, deputy fire chief for the Weber Fire District, cautioned that Thursday morning’s NIFC costs did not include the expensive air operations.

“The first day we had four aircraft and two helicopters,” Thueson said. “And the next day we had two Black Hawk helicopters and a large heavy helicopter used for firefighting. Those are very expensive to operate by the hour — so that number will be dramatically higher once it’s turned in.” 

By early next week, Thueson expects to have more comprehensive totals for operational costs. .

“They’re crunching numbers like crazy right now,” he said, adding that the fire’s size “hit some benchmarks to be able to look at federal funding.”

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Thueson also encouraged residents to watch Twitter (@WeberFireDist) for updates about dumpster locations. Those mobile bins will be placed in their neighborhoods some time Monday.

“We know they’re doing clean up and might need to dispose of items. We are going to bring in some dumpsters that will be restricted to green waste items,” Thueson said. “All other garbage and refuse needs to be taken to the (Weber County) Transfer Station, and if they show proof of residency in the fire area, there will be no cost for that.”

Green waste — which includes tree branches, bushes and other plant-based material — will not be accepted at the Transfer Station. The facility, located at 867 W. Wilson Lane in Ogden, operates from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. It’s closed on Sunday.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.  

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