Donald Warmbier: Wildfire safety concerns in the Avenues are not ‘over the top’

Proposed development at the top of F Street would increase the risk of wildfires.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Site of a proposed Ivory Homes development at 675 North F Street in The Avenues in Salt Lake City.

I am a resident of Northpoint, a community of 50 homes in a Wildland Urban Interface, that area of Salt Lake City the U.S. Forest Service has designated as being at highest risk from wildfires. Yet, at its June 22 meeting, the Salt Lake Planning Commission voted to further increase Northpoint’s wildfire risk.

In the event of a wildfire, there is only one way for Northpoint residents to get out, and Fire Department vehicles to get in. This is F Street, where Ivory Homes has asked for a zoning change allowing it to add a development on this chokepoint with 38 residences, more than doubling the density of the 18 possible under current zoning.

More parked cars on F Street from Ivory’s proposed denser development will create a more severe choke point of F Street, slowing both evacuation of Northpoint residents and access by Fire Department vehicles.

Wildfires can travel fast. Minutes added to evacuation or access time by a more severe choke point can make a life or death difference.

This is not just a theoretical risk. Northpoint residents had to fight wildfire that recently reached Northpoint’s boundary with City Creek Canyon with garden hoses until the Fire Department arrived.

At its June 22nd meeting, however, Planning Commissioner Brenda Scheer ridiculed Northpoint’s residents’ wildfire concerns, calling them “over the top.”

But the Salt Lake Fire Department does not consider such concerns as “over the top.”

The Fire Department has published a “Guide To Fire Adapted Communities,” in which it specifically calls for “proactive land use planning” in a Wildland Urban Interface, to decrease the “risk of damage from future wildfires.”

But in voting to recommend a rezone allowing Ivory’s development, the Planning Commission completely ignored this Fire Department Guide for land use planning in a high wildfire risk area. Instead, the Planning Commission simply applied the same “minimum requirements for fire vehicle and firefighter access” to this development in a high wildfire risk area that it would “universally apply to all development in the City,” irrespective of their wildfire risk.

The Planning Commission must be aware that wildfires, the type of environmental danger the current low density zoning was designed to protect against, have become much more frequent since that zoning was established in the 1987 Master Plan.

On the basis of this increased wildfire frequency, the Planning Commission should have exercised proactive land use planning to reduce the risk of future wildfire damage by actually reducing currently allowed density. At the very least, the Planning Commission should have rejected Ivory’s requested higher density development, instead of voting to allow Ivory to double density and wildfire risk.

The City Council will make the final decision on this rezone in the coming weeks. Let us all hope that City Council members are not so cavalier in their attitude toward wildfire safety concerns as the Planning Commission, and will instead follow the Salt Lake Fire Department’s guide, and use proactive land use planning to decrease, or at least not further increase, the risk of damage from future wildfires.

Donald Warmbier

Donald Warmbier, a retired attorney, lives in Salt Lake City.