By Sheila McGuire
EVANSTON — At the Aug. 18 regular meeting, the Uinta County Commissioners approved a resolution to institute fire restrictions in the county at the request of county fire warden Eric Quinney. Commissioners also got updates on federal CARES Act funding that has been approved for county uses to help with some of the expenses and other issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Quinney asked commissioners to establish a fire closure throughout Uinta County due to conditions throughout the area and in neighboring counties and states. Quinney said conditions are getting progressively drier and there is no significant moisture in the extended forecast. He said both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have enacted similar closures and he thinks it’s wise for all the coordinating agencies to have similar restrictions.
Quinney told commissioners that not only are conditions very dry, with continued heat and wind in the forecast, but there are also large numbers of people traveling and utilizing campgrounds. He said that, in fact, utilization of the Bridger-Teton National Forest is currently rivaling the visitation that occurred during the summer of 2017 when people were traveling to view the total solar eclipse.
Prior to the Painter Fire that broke out last week, Quinney said he was a bit hesitant to set restrictions, but that fire demonstrated just how dry and dangerous conditions are. He said most fuel moisture samples have returned at critical levels at only approximately 75-80% of normal moisture for this time of year.
Quinney said he’s also concerned because there are numerous large fires in surrounding states, meaning firefighting resources are spread thin and there likely wouldn’t be enough resources available to fight a large fire should one occur in the county. He said it’s also important to continue to try to avoid having large numbers of fire crews together in one area due to the COVID pandemic.
Commissioners approved the fire closure resolution, which went into effect on Aug. 19, prohibiting any open fire or discharge of any class A, B, and/or C fireworks on all state and private land. There are some exceptions, including for trash or refuse burned between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. inside containers equipped with spark arresters and that are located within a cleared area with at least a 10-foot radius.
Campfires are permissible, provided they occur within an established fire ring at an established campground. Charcoal and propane fires within enclosed grills are allowed, as are backyard fire pits provided they are in an approved pit with a manicured yard and accessible water. Manicured means a lawn that is mowed, maintained and watered or an all-dirt area; however, fire pits in areas surrounded by tall, dry vegetation of any kind are prohibited.
The use of acetylene cutting torches or electric arc welders and propane or open fire branding activities is permitted, provided such use occurs within a cleared area with at least a 10-foot radius. Public-sponsored fireworks displays coordinated with the fire warden are also permissible.
Violations of the fire restriction orders can result in a $100 fine or 30 days in jail or both; however, Quinney said if a fire were to occur because of a willful disregard of the closure the offending individual could be held liable to damages.
A press release from the Bridger-Teton National Forest notes fire danger is very high at the present time and that Teton Interagency Fire personnel have extinguished nearly 200 unattended or abandoned campfires already this summer. The release stressed the importance of making sure fires are completely out and cold to the touch before campers leave the area.
Commissioners also heard from county emergency management director Kim West and Uinta County Human Services Director Jim Hissong regarding federal CARES Act dollars being utilized in the county. West said the county had been approved for the approximately $175,000 requested, which will be utilized for a number of projects and purposes. West said those projects included the purchase of UV lights to disinfect county HVAC systems, glass partitions for counters used by the public, a new washer and dryer with sanitizing features for use in the county complex, expenses related to the refurbishment of a county vehicle to be utilized for potential COVID cases, electrostatic spray cleaners and for renovations of the sally port utilized to transfer prisoners to and from court appearances to prevent exposure during those transfers.
Commissioner Craig Welling thanked West for his work on writing the grant applications to secure the funding, noting Uinta County was one of only three counties in the state that had submitted a request and been approved. West said more than 100 applications had been received by the State Loan and Investment Board, but the vast majority were received from organizations and institutions.
Hissong said Uinta County Human Services has been approved for $157,000 to be used to help respond to the COVID pandemic. Of that, just under $90,000 is to be used for emergency assistance for individuals under 200% of the federal poverty level.
Hissong shared an eligibility table, which showed that for a family of four, 200% of the federal poverty level is $52,400. He said that might seem high for Uinta County; however, other areas of the country have a higher cost of living.
Assistance available includes one-time utility and/or rent assistance up to $900 and food boxes for qualifying families. Hissong said the food boxes are designed to get a family through about one week because when a family qualifies for SNAP benefits it typically takes about one week to get that family set up with a card, etc. The food boxes therefore help feed the family for that week.
Boxes consist of non-perishable items, including peanut butter and jelly, canned goods, dry beans, pasta, rice, cereal, granola bars, dry milk and coupons for hamburger, chicken and bread.
Hissong said individuals can be referred to their office by DFS, the Uinta Senior Center or other outside agencies to receive the assistance or can contact the Human Services offices directly to see if they qualify for assistance.
The other CARES Act monies received by UCHS include just over $50,000 to help pay for salary and benefits for a casework for the SAFV Task Force. Hissong said SAFV lost some funding when Congress failed to renew the Victims of Crime Act; however, given that SAFV’s case load has increased by 15-20% during the pandemic, some funding can be utilized to help meet the increased need for that agency.
Another $14,400 is to be utilized by the UCHS Tripartite Board to pay for the increased fiduciary oversight due to the many restrictions and accounting requirements that accompany the CARES Act funding.
Hissong stressed the CARES Act funding is completely separate from the Community Services Block Grant funding UCHS receives, which is also utilized for emergency assistance, SAFV emergency shelter needs, pre-employment services for disabled youth through Disability:IN, academic mentoring and nutrition assistance at the Evanston Youth Club and for administration and oversight of grants through the Tripartite Board.