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City and county officials consider improving city’s fire resilience

Jackson Hole Fire/EMS presented an updated community wildfire protection plan to city and county officials earlier this week.

For the first time, the plan would aim to make major new developments and renovations across almost the entire city fire-resistant. This comes as wildfires in the West become more frequent and more intense due to climate change, blurring the line between risks for urban and rural areas.

The plan refines the cities’ wildland urban interface (WUI), which contains areas where human development meets wilderness. In the past, the WUI boundary primarily included the outskirts of the city or more rural areas of Teton County. But now the entire city of Jackson could be included, including private properties. According to Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, you don’t have to be right next to a wilderness to be considered at risk of wildfire.

On May 6, Fire Marshal Raymond Lane presented the new plan to local government officials. It hasn’t been updated since 2014, and ultimately they agreed the plan needed to be updated.

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I think we’re learning through research, fire modeling and new technologies that weren’t available in 2014, that our risk is probably a little greater than we imagined,” Lane said.

But councilors and commissioners still had some concerns: What specific preventative measures should be implemented in future developments and renovations? How will the plan impact the workload of fire/EMS and city personnel? And how will the city roll out the new guidelines to the public?

Jackson has not experienced major wildfires in recent years, but the city’s wildfire risk is higher than that of about 84 percent of communities in the United States, according to the Forest Service. And with so much wilderness surrounding the city, officials say there may not be enough support to protect the city in the event of a major fire.

They fear a fire could reach the crest of the surrounding mountains and embers could fall on the town, igniting structures. Preventative measures, they say, must be taken.

“I’m going to preface the reality of this department and this community,” Lane said. “In the event we experience a major wildfire here, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and our state and federal partners will not have enough manpower to protect every structure.”

If the updated plan is adopted this summer, all new major developments and renovations in Jackson would have to be built in a more fire-resistant manner, and certain combustibles like trees would have to be thinned out in development areas.

Wildfires aren’t really a fire problem. It’s really a building and land issue,” Lane said. “This is how we are going to build a wildfire resilient community moving forward into the future.”