Pole Creek Fire tour 18

Officials talk amongst themselves as they walk around a burn-scar area during a tour to examine conditions within Payson Canyon following last year's Pole Creek and Bald Mountain wildfires Tuesday, July 16, 2019, along Nebo Loop Road. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

It’s been almost a year since the spark of the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires that burned more than 120,000 acres and evacuated thousands of southern Utah County residents from their homes.

It’s taken longer than hoped, but $9.6 million in federal funding from the Emergency Watershed Program has been awarded to communities affected by the fires last year, according to U.S. Rep. John Curtis.

“I’m very pleased that we finally received some funding,” Curtis said Thursday. “Many were frustrated, myself included, that it took so long. Like many government policies and opportunities, it’s fraught with bureaucracy and double checks and double checks.”

Following containment of the massive fires in 2018, residents and cities at the base of the extensively-burned canyons like Loafer Canyon and Spanish Fork Canyon faced the very real issue of debris flow coming off the burn scar and damaging homes. Whole cities are at risk of debris flow contaminating supplies of drinking water.

Unlike the flames, this risk is not something that can be taken care of within a few weeks. According to experts, at-risk areas need to be on alert for debris flow for up to five years after the initial burn.

Utah County, Payson, Santaquin, Spanish Fork, Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and the Strawberry Water User’s Association all applied for the funding under the umbrella of Utah County for $20-25 million in funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection program.

The local entities have to match 25% of the funds for their projects, though that can be in labor and equipment costs, not just cash.

The EWP program provides financial and technical assistance for projects such as removing debris from stream channels, reshaping eroded stream banks and establishing vegetative cover on critically eroding lands, according to the NRCS website.

The main work done with the funding will be temporary measures like debris removal, stream bank protection and other practices that provide immediate relief and protection in high-risk areas.

Curtis held a roundtable with community leaders Tuesday to announce the funding alongside James Hubbard, the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Environment.

Curtis said the roundtable was productive, but said there was some frustration with the process of obtaining the funding.

A flaw in the process was identified, Curtis said, that he intends to address through legislation.

Counties and cities can’t spend money or start working on their identified mitigation projects until the federal part of the funding comes through.

“We are planning on running some legislation to change that so in the future, if they want to go ahead and take that risk, they can do that and then get reimbursed,” Curtis said.

Katie England covers local government, the environment and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

Katie England covers politics, county government and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

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