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Holladay Journal

Neff’s Canyon fire awakens residents to dangers of the wildland urban interface

Oct 26, 2020 03:16PM ● By Zak Sonntag

Smoke rises out of Neff’s Canyon, visible from a nearby church. (Photo courtesy Kiara Benne)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The small but intractable Neff’s Canyon fire in the Mount Olympus Wilderness area burnt from September through October, torching over 60 acres and reminding residents of the inherent dangers of living near wildland urban interfaces. 

“When you’re looking out your kitchen window at the ridge and you can see flames, it’s scary, especially when the neighborhood watched conifer trees exploding into flames one by one,” said John Noblock, a member of the Mount Olympus Community Council. 

The timber and oak brush fire began approximately 1 mile up the Neff’s Canyon trail after a lightning strike created underground embers that kindled for days before spreading to other foliage, according to fire investigators. Over 150 firefighters contributed to fighting the Neff’s fire in the initial weeks, cutting vegetation lines and clearing debris. Leaders from the Forest Service, Unified Fire and the Department of Natural Resources lived-streamed presentations in September that encouraged Holladay and Millcreek residents to be prepared for potential fire encroachment. 

“You can think of it as a three-phase approach: ‘Ready. Set. Go,” said John Slatore, Unified Fire Authority incident commander. “The first phase is removing leaves, cleaning gutters and clearing patio furniture. The ‘Set” part is to prepare a 72-hour pack. And, if we reach the ‘Go’ phase, that means when it’s time to go, you go. Don’t wait; evacuate.” 

Cove resident Kiara Benne said, “We hoped it wouldn’t get to evacuation, but for the first time I was forced into the feeling of fear about the risk [of wildfires]. After seeing what’s happened to people in California and Oregon, it makes us realize this is something we don’t have a whole lot of control over.”

The fire’s containment remained low in the initial weeks in large part to the perilous canyon terrain, which posed challenges to fire managers who struggled to get equipment and personnel into the steep and rocky locations. “It’s tricky and dangerous for the pilots to be flying in those canyons to deliver water buckets and fire retardant,” said Slatore.

One firefighter was injured after being struck by a fallen tree on the steep mountainside. The firefighter has since recovered. The fire was snuffed out in October with the help of a rainstorm. The Neff’s fire is one of hundreds of conflagrations this year witnessed across the state during a fire season that was intensified by drought-like conditions.

“It’s been an unusually hot and dry year. We are currently in record-setting territory for vegetation dryness, which is a problem because that’s when you see extreme fire behavior,” said Nanette Hosenfeild, meteorologist with Great Basin Coordination Center, speaking to Holladay residents via Zoom.  

The fire impacted the quality of community life beyond increased stress levels.

“It felt like you were stepping out into a campfire. The air quality was really bad,” Benne said.

Nonetheless, there is a sense that the fire may increase preparedness for future threats.

“I think we lucked out, because if we had a down canyon wind event it could have been catastrophic. That’s when it suddenly gets real for people,” said Noblock, a 22-year Cove resident and chemical engineer. “During the days all I heard was a chorus of chainsaws. People are starting to take defensible space on their property seriously, clearing bushes and trees around their house.” 

Benne, a mother of two, said, “We got prepared after the [March] earthquake; we put together little emergency packs. Not much, but it gives you some peace of mind, because we realize you can’t always predict what’s going to happen.”