For two remote Utah communities, the only warning of wildfire is often a knock at the door

Since 2017, officials have had a goal of installing an advance wildfire warning system in Kolob Mountain and Pinto in Washington County. So far, it hasn’t happened.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) Cabins on Kolob Mountain stand nestled between the pines and juniper trees Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. Surrounded by Zion National Park and rugged wilderness, cabins and ranches in the Kolob area are under constant threat from wildfires.

Washington County • Terry Lamoreaux says two things concern him: wildfires and drought.

At his cattle ranch on Kolob Mountain, located along the northern edge of Zion National Park, extreme drought is evident in a parched spring and dry ponds on his 1,680 acres of land.

The 73-year-old and his family saw some rain recently, he explained as he and his daughter mended fences damaged by elk. But it didn’t fill up the empty ponds, just greened up the grass a bit. Before the rain, “it was really dry,” he told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter.

“You could throw a match here and the whole thing would go up in flames,” he said.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) Terry Lamoreaux works on repairing fences on his family ranch on Kolob Mountain Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

The Lamoreaux Ranch had a close call in July, when the lightning-sparked Kolob Upper Fire scorched about 17 acres along Kolob Terrace Road, the main road in and out of the Kolob community. It was the closest blaze that Lamoreaux can remember.

“It was concerning enough that we took a backhoe and made a big fire line across the bottom of our property,” he said.

Lamoreaux, who lives in Cedar City during the winter, sometimes learns about which fires are threatening his family’s property through a Facebook group. Other times, he’ll get a text from the National Park Service. Cellphone reception is so spotty that receiving messages or making calls often takes some doing — much less getting emergency alerts in a timely manner.

“We go up the hill to check on our texts a couple of times a day — morning and early evening,” Lamoreaux said. “We kind of live off the grid here.” The family doesn’t have access to internet either, or electricity, but Lamoreaux isn’t bothered by that. “Sometimes it feels good to get away from all that stuff.”

Kolob Mountain’s isolation has been a concern to county officials and emergency managers since at least 2017.

Every five years, officials with the Five County Association of Governments create a natural hazard mitigation plan for Washington, Beaver, Garfield, Iron and Kane counties, which includes strategies and goals for combating wildfires, floods, earthquakes, landslides and other dangers.

In the plans for both 2017-2022 and 2022-2027, developing an early wildfire warning system for Kolob Mountain and another similarly isolated area in Washington County, called Pinto, is listed as a high-priority, long-term goal.

So far, it hasn’t happened. But “I think we’re getting closer,” said Jason Whipple, emergency manager for Washington County.

In the meantime, communication is “really hard” in Kolob, he said. And as more people pour into Washington County, the fire danger is only growing.

‘Year-round’ fire danger

The tiny community of Pinto — not much more than a cluster of houses and a cemetery — is situated on a dirt road between Cedar City and Enterprise. It’s an idyllic place, even though the winters are harsh and wildfire risk is high. And even though communities around Pinto are expanding.

In fact, Pinto is so isolated that, should a major blaze ignite, the only way authorities can currently let residents know if they need to evacuate is by driving to the town and knocking on doors.

But with St. George in a “growing phase,” according to Whipple, development is creeping ever closer to wildland, potentially creating more pockets that are too remote to receive emergency alerts but also at increased risk for wildfire.

More people building in deeply remote areas — surrounded by flammable pinyon and juniper trees — creates more “wildland urban interface,” or the zone where human development meets undeveloped wildlands.

The latest natural hazard mitigation plan states that building in the wildland urban interface contributes to wildfires that are costly to suppress and most damaging to property.

Kolob Mountain and Pinto are both in close contact with wildland. “That puts them at a little bit of a higher risk,” Whipple said, because if a wildfire is coming, it’s harder for crews to get there in time.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) John Hafen's summer home in Pinto stands next to pastures and green fields Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Surrounded by the Dixie National Forest and rugged wilderness, cabins in the Pinto area are under constant threat from wildfires.

The towns of Diamond Valley, Springdale, Dammeron Valley, Apple Valley, New Harmony, Veyo and parts of Hurricane all are seeing new construction, even though they were deemed at risk for wildland fires in the Five County Association of Governments’ natural hazard mitigation plan for 2017-2022.

Whether more people are stopping in St. George on the way to visit Zion National Park, or putting down roots, their presence is driving up the risk of wildfire in the area.

“We’re getting more people out there,” Whipple said. “And when you get more people out there, the more fires you’re going to get.”

For people who move to Washington County from outside of Utah, Whipple said the understanding is, “’Well, we could do this in our state, why can’t we do it here?’ So, you get someone that comes from somewhere in the Midwest or back East, and lighting fireworks and having open fires is not a big deal for 95% of the time.

“When you come out here, it is a big deal 95% of the time,” he continued, “because our fire season used to be from March to September, [and] now it’s pretty much year-round.”

Despite the tourism dollars that visitors bring when they come to St. George and Washington County, they often come from places that don’t have the same need for heightened awareness of wildfire danger.

“We get a lot of those people that come through, which increases our travel,” Whipple said. “So we have a lot of wildfires that are actually started off of roadways, from tires blowing, to chains dragging on trailers, discarded cigarettes, those kinds of things.”

On top of that, when the weather is nice enough for people to camp outside, unattended campfires can spark a wildfire.

In 2020, out of Washington County’s 160 wildfires, 133 were human-caused, according to data from Utah Wildfire Info cited in the 2022-2027 plan. And the largest wildfire in the history of Zion National Park, the 2006 Kolob Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres in the park, was human-caused.

St. George has had its own fires, including the 2020 Turkey Farm Road Fire, which burned 11,993 acres and cost more than $2.5 million to fight, according to The Spectrum.

Calling from the ‘Kolob Phone Booth’

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) A sign reading "Kolob Phone Booth" stands at a small turnout on the road through Kolob Mountain. This spot is one of the few in the area where a cellphone signal can be found.

Kolob residents find ways to make do when it’s difficult to get a good signal on their phones. Wendy Holt, who lives in Hurricane with her husband and built a home in Kolob five years ago, said they can’t get cellphone reception at their house.

But if they drive down the hill, and go just off the road to a certain tree, they can “usually” get service there, she said. The spot is marked with a sign that says “Kolob Phone Booth.”

County officials have brainstormed possible early warning systems for Kolob — even discussing installing a siren on a pole, Whipple said.

It’s the same in Pinto: While there’s good cell service in the center of the community, Whipple said, there are a lot of areas that don’t get workable service at all, with many people having to rely on boosted antennas.

John Hafen, 79, who has lived in Pinto his entire life, said he can’t use a cellphone at his house. Instead, he walks to his shop about a half-mile away, “and it works good there.” Hafen doesn’t have the equipment necessary to access internet at home, but he’s able to get online at his children’s house nearby.

As things stand now, Whipple said that in the event of a wildfire endangering Pinto or Kolob, emergency personnel would rely on deputies driving out and telling people face-to-face that they need to evacuate.

Still, officials said there are a few options available to Kolob and Pinto residents that can provide information in the event of a wildfire.

The Washington County Citizen Alert Notification System (powered by Everbridge) does work in both areas, but it’s dependent on cellphone coverage and internet service. You can visit 911register.com and sign up to receive emergency alerts in the format that works best for you, including text message, email, phone call and more.

Whipple said Washington County also utilizes the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), which is FEMA’s wireless emergency alert system. IPAWS will take an area between certain cell towers and send out a message in that specific area to whichever cellphones are in range.

It’s unclear if Kolob Mountain residents have access to reverse 911 calls. A dispatcher with Washington County said residents should get reverse 911 calls if they’re signed up for a landline. But a customer service representative with Beehive Broadband, which provides internet and phone service to the Kolob community, said the company doesn’t have a reverse 911 call service set up.

If you are a resident of Kolob or Pinto who needs assistance getting internet service, the federal Affordable Connectivity Program can help.

The benefit program available for eligible households provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service, and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands.

Through the program, households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, tablet or desktop computer if they contribute between $10 and $50 toward the purchase price. Beehive Broadband has elected to participate in the program. Visit FCC.gov/acp for more information.