The wildfire season in Box Elder County has been relatively quiet for most of the summer, but two human-caused blazes over the past week serve as a reminder that dangerous fire conditions still exist out there.
Crews were still working early this week to extinguish a fire west of Park Valley that consumed about 4,000 acres of rangeland last week. Box Elder County Corey Barton on Monday said the Dennis Hill Fire is 100% contained, but firefighters have been monitoring the situation and addressing a few flareups that have happened among juniper trees in the area.
While they were still working to put the finishing touches on that fire over the weekend, word came in late Sunday morning that another blaze had broken out in the Promontory Mountains. By Monday afternoon, the Messix Fire had burned approximately 1,000 acres in the Messix Canyon area.
The Box Elder County fire and road departments were being assisted by crews from the State of Utah, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Air support was brought in Sunday to fight the fire burning in mountainous terrain, and it was extinguished on Tuesday, July 28.
Barton said both fires were human-caused, but no further details were available Monday regarding how exactly they were started.
The Dennis Hill Fire started in the afternoon on Monday, July 20, near mile marker 44 on Highway 30. The blaze had scorched some 40 acres when firefighters first arrived on the scene, but spread quickly due to sustained 40 mile-per-hour winds in the area. Approximately 60 firefighters from state, federal, and local agencies including Garland, Brigham City, Fielding, Thatcher/Penrose, Willard, Corinne, Weber County, Box Elder County, State of Utah, and the Bureau of Land Management worked to get it under control.
Heavy rain in the middle of last week week provided a major boost in fighting that fire.
There have been no injuries reported on either fire. Some structures were threatened initially in both cases, but Barton said firefighters have been able to protect them and prevent any major structural damage.
He said the wind changed direction several times on Sunday, presenting a challenge to crews on the scene, but conditions were more favorable on Monday despite high temperatures and low humidity.
The two fires over the past week were the first major blazes in Box Elder County since early June, when three fires started by lightning burned about 10,000 acres in the western part of the county. Those fires didn’t destroy any working structures either, but some historic wooden railroad trestles were lost.
Outside of Box Elder County, there were six other wildfires burning across Utah as of Monday. Data from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands indicate that more than 80 percent of fires in Utah this summer have been caused by human activity.
Officials are reminding people that the summer fireworks season is over in the state. The next legal time to light fireworks in Utah will be New Year’s Eve.
Fire restrictions that took effect July 18 remain in place across the county. Open fires are prohibited in unincorporated parts of the county except for in designated campgrounds. The restrictions also prohibit the use of tracer ammunition, exploding targets, torch cutters or welders, and outdoor smoking.
“Please remember, you are responsible for everything you light and burn,” Barton said.
Tremonton City is beginning in earnest its search for a full-time fire chief as the city transitions from an all-volunteer fire department to a combination of volunteers and staff.
City officials will start advertising to fill the new fire chief position, a spot that will also serve as the city’s emergency manager. Tremonton’s budget for the new fiscal year that began July 1 allocated almost $100,000 to pay for the new position, but with the additional duties and the evolving nature of the department, some are concerned that isn’t enough to attract the level of talent and experience that the position will require.
Last week, City Manager Shawn Warnke and the Tremonton City Council had a lengthy discussion around how to conduct the interview process for filling what Mayor Roger Fridal called “a high-pressure job.”
Since the position has always been a volunteer one, the city has had no specific criteria in place for hiring a fire chief like it does for the police department. Warnke said the plan is to follow a process similar to that of hiring a police chief.
“Generally, I think this is a good process that has served us well,” he said.
Warnke and the council have spent considerable time discussing the process, and came up with a general plan during a meeting last week.
Following a three-week advertisement period, the city plans to have a committee that will review applications. Those who pass the first round of reviews will be asked to submit written answers to essay questions, after which officials hope to narrow the field to no more than three candidates. Finalists will then be invited to a series of in-person interviews with committees made up of a mix of councilmembers and city staff, as well as current members of the fire department.
Warnke said the written-response portion of the process was useful in the most recent recruitment for police chief.
“It weeds out individuals who aren’t really serious about going through the process,” he said. “It allows someone to really think through their responses.”
Once that portion is complete, he said the oral interviews before a panel will help the city determine how the candidates might perform under pressure.
Those who conduct the interviews will then make a recommendation to the city council, which has to make the final call on the new hire.
The current timeline calls for that final decision to be made at the council’s second October meeting.
Whoever ends up in the job will have his or her hands full, as they will be taking on a leadership role in a department that is in transition.
The city in recent months has been exploring solutions for full-time staffing at the fire department, which has traditionally relied on volunteers to handle fire and emergency calls for Tremonton and surrounding communities.
A consultant had presented a plan that called for the hiring of a fire chief and two to four full-time crew members, but the city council decided against that approach in June because it would have required a significant property tax increase to provide the funding. Instead, the council made room in the existing budget for a fire chief and one additional police officer.
Current members of the fire department have spent time at recent council meeting voicing their opinions about how to proceed, with some advocating a full-time crew and others wishing to stick with the all-volunteer model.
The new chief will have to address those concerns while watching over a department that has seen a steady increase in emergency call volumes as the city and surrounding area continues to see growth.
“We have to be realistic about what a person can achieve in a position like that,” Warnke said. “There’s going to be a learning curve.”
The new chief will also have to function as the city emergency manager, adding another dynamic to the position. With all of these responsibilities wrapped into one job, the council decided the pay should be higher than what was initially proposed, bringing the compensation more in line with that of the police chief.
“This position requires that we pay more,” Councilmember Bret Rohde said.
Councilmember Lyle Vance said it will be important to give existing volunteer members of the department a strong say in who will be their next leader.
“We need these guys. They’re very important to Tremonton City,” Vance said. “We’re evolving from all-volunteer to starting to hire people. This is a unique situation to Tremonton, and we can’t fail.”
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Federal unemployment aid that has helped avert financial ruin for millions of Americans expired in Utah and elsewhere this weekend, leaving many residents unsure of how they’ll pay their bills as the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
Since early in the pandemic, the federal government has added $600 to the weekly unemployment checks that states send, but with the program set to end many are left wondering how they’ll make ends meet.
New unemployment claims in Utah have dropped overall as the state economy reopens, but they’re still significantly higher than a year earlier. Some jobs haven’t come back. Tens of thousands live-events workers remain in a stomach-churning limbo, having little idea when it might be safe to hold the gatherings their jobs are built around.
Christian Haskins of Salt Lake City had been thinking about replacing his 20-year-old truck, but now he’s just hoping it doesn’t break down since he couldn’t afford repairs. At 37, he’s considering moving back in with his parents to save money.
He works in the live-events industry as a labor coordinator, and was laid off earlier this month after another federal-aid program for small businesses ran out for his employer. Depending on state unemployment alone is a drastic income drop from the middle-class career he’d built for himself, and with concerts and shows still shuttered indefinitely he doesn’t know when he might be able to return to his job.
“It’s barely surviving. It’s just having enough to pay for the mortgage, food, health insurance,” he said. “If I get into a car accident or my condo bathtub springs a leak, some sort of accident happens ... it’s a ton of money out of pocket.”
Audio engineer Steve Waldram took a drastic pay cut to become a delivery driver to make ends meet after he was laid off. He just bought a house a year ago, and is hoping he’ll be able to keep it.
“I worked so hard for the last 12 years to get here, and now it’s ripped out from underneath me,” he said.