When a wildfire broke out near the resort town of Brian Head in the mountains northeast of Cedar City earlier this summer, Steve Ikuta, emergency management program manager for Intermountain Healthcare’s Southwest Region, was one of the people who was called on to help battle the flames. In addition to his role helping Intermountain teams in southern Utah prepare for disasters, Steve serves as a volunteer firefighter for the city of Santa Clara and has helped fight several wildfires over the past 13 years.
Here are some lessons Steve learned as he’s fought wildfires, how Intermountain prepares for fires, and how you can prepare.
What was it like fighting the Brian Head fire?
- Steve was deployed to the fire on June 22 and stayed through July 5 — a total of 14 days. He worked 16 hours per day, from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day.
- For the first week of his deployment, Steve was assigned to help protect the Thunder Ridge Boy Scout camp near Parowan. Then he moved to the other side of the mountain to help protect Highway 143 near Panguitch.
- At its peak, more than 1,700 firefighters from all over the country were helping battle the Brian Head blaze. “With so many people at base camp, the lines for the showers and food got pretty long some nights,” Steve says. “We had to prioritize whether we wanted to eat first or shower. I’ll admit I often went a day or two without a shower.”
- Firefighters came from all over the U.S. to help, including from California, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma. “It was fun meeting people from all over the country,” Steve says. “And since much of the firefighting was happening at above 8,000 feet, it was fun watching people get used to the elevation.”
- Steve says it was a tough two weeks, but also very rewarding. “The best part was when we saw how grateful the staff of the Boy Scout camp was when we were able to save their camp,” Steve says. “That’s why I do it.”
How do wildfires like the Brian Head fire affect Intermountain facilities?
The Brian Head fire came within miles of Garfield Memorial Hospital in Panguitch, and although the facility wasn’t threatened by flames, the hospital’s team did feel the effects of the fire.
- Several people were treated at Garfield Memorial for problems related to smoke inhalation, and the hospital treated five firefighters in their emergency department.
- The hospital team took proactive steps to prepare for the fire in case it got too close, including figuring out how they’d relocate patients from their long-term care facility and reviewing plans for how they’d handle disruptions in utilities and supplies. They also had a plan for how they’d cope in case they got a sudden influx of patients. All Intermountain facilities have similar plans in place for how they’d respond to fires and other disasters.
- Wildfires often burn power lines and threaten water supplies, which can disrupt electricity and water at medical facilities. Luckily Garfield Memorial didn’t experience any disruptions, but they had backup sources in place just in case.
- After a wildfire is out, there’s an increased risk of flashfloods and landslides in burned areas, which could damage roads and structures — and possibly cause injuries. Crews are working to reseed the areas burnt by the Brian Head Fire, but the danger remains high.
How can you prepare for wildfires?
Utah is among the top 10 states that are most at risk from wildfires. Last year more than 1,000 wildfires in Utah burned more than 101,000 acres.
If you have a home or cabin in an area that’s at risk for wildfires, here are some ways you can protect yourself and your property:
- Create and maintain an area approximately 30 feet away from your home that’s free of anything that will burn — such as wood piles, dried leaves, brush, and other landscaping that can burn. This defensible space can create a barrier between your home and the fire.
“When firefighters go into an area with threatened homes, like they did at Brian Head, they’ll identify homes they think they can save,” Steve says. “If a home doesn’t have at least 30 feet of defensible space surrounding it, they often won’t even try to defend it. They just don’t have the time and resources, especially if the fire is imminent.”
- Make a plan for how you’ll evacuate if a fire comes, including where to go and how to get there, and have an emergency preparedness kit stocked and ready to grab at a moment’s notice. “A fire can shift directions quickly and unpredictably, so you may not have much notice before you have to leave,” Steve says. “You should always be ready to leave quickly.”
- You can find many more suggestions and resources at Ready.gov
The Brian Head fire started on June 17 when a cabin owner tried to burn weeds around his property. The wildfire destroyed 13 homes and eight outbuildings and caused hundreds of people to evacuate their homes for nearly two weeks. The fire burned more than 72,000 acres and cost an estimated $34 million. At one point, the Brian Head fire was the largest wildfire in the country.