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Utah cities hit by wildfire confronting burn-scar risks

December 22, 2018

PROVO, Utah (AP) — Utah cities where wildfires forced thousands of people to evacuate in September are now beginning to confront the long-term damage, including possible mudslides and debris flow.

Utah County is asking the federal government for $20 million to help mitigate future problems, which could include damage to homes or the water supply, The Daily Herald newspaper in Provo reported.

Water flowing down areas where trees have been burned out by fire can cause problems for up to five years after the original blaze, according to experts.

It’s impossible for cities to ask people to be on high alert for that long, so it’s important to take action now, said Woodland Hills Mayor Wendy Pray.

“Nobody can sustain that effort,” she said. “That’s the reason we have to make sure we have a plan to put debris where we want it.”

People in Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and other southern Utah County communities were forced to evacuate for nine days in September. The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires destroyed a combined 188 square miles (487 square kilometers) over the course of several weeks.

That terrain is now stripped bare of trees and other plants, leaving little to prevent dirt from turning into mud and rushing downstream during the spring runoff season. That could contaminate drinking water or send mud flowing into homes.

Projects to alleviate the risk include steel fencing, debris basins and re-planting vegetation. But they could cost millions, money that the small cities affected by the wildfires don’t have.

The communities are banding together under the umbrella of Utah County to ask for $20 to 25 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection program.

There are 20 to 30 potential projects. In Spanish Fork, for example, officials are prioritizing protecting streams on Loafer Mountain, where the city sources about 15 percent of its water. Still, even if the funding is approved, cities will still have to come up with a 25 percent match, which could be tough for smaller cities. In Elk Ridge, they want to build fencing and retention ponds, but with a total city budget of $1.5 million, a project that costs $2 million, for example, could take a major bite.

Cities are hoping in-kind services can form a large portion of their share. If they get funding approval, they’d like to have at least some projects finished by the spring, when runoff increases the risk.

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