ST. GEORGE – In addition to declaring a state of emergency for the Saddle Fire, the Washington County Commission Tuesday funded a trail along Tuacahn Drive and announced a decrease in the property tax rate.
Commissioner Zachary Renstrom reported to the commission that the Saddle Fire burning on Pine Valley Mountain has “exploded,” and the commission declared a local state of emergency.
“Last night, the fire doubled in size,” Renstrom said. “It really has exploded.”
In addition, conditions have worsened with increasing wind and very hot, dry weather.
The fire started burning June 13, the emergency declaration states. High winds, high temperatures, steep slopes and rocky terrain kept firefighters from safely attacking the fire in its early stages, and multiple drone intrusions have compromised the safety of aircraft and fire crews and further hampered firefighting efforts.
Sheriff Cory Pulsipher declared an emergency Tuesday around noon and began evacuations and road closures. The sheriff has the authority to declare an emergency, Renstrom said, but it must be ratified by the County Commission within a short period of time.
The official declaration of a state of emergency gives the sheriff the authority to close more roads and evacuate more areas if needed. The extra authority only applies to the Saddle Fire and the area affected by it, Renstrom said. The emergency will be lifted as soon as it is no longer needed.
The formal state of emergency allows for government entities to bypass some normal processes for spending, County Administrator Dean Cox said, and allows quicker access to funds if needed. All emergency spending is subject to approval later in the usual way.
If more than 100 homes are threatened in a fire emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — or FEMA — can authorize additional resources to help the county, Cox said. The declaration also puts the state and federal government on notice that the county may need additional resources.
The fire started in terrain that is so steep and rocky that fire crews could not safely fight it on the ground.
“These heavy aircraft and helicopters are extremely expensive,” Cox said, using the example that a single pass dropping retardant can cost $10,000 to $15,000.
Renstrom and Commissioner Alan Gardner — whose family home is in Pine Valley — visited the area Tuesday.
“We drove up there and I was shocked to see how much the fire has exploded,” Renstrom said.
Despite a sometimes rocky relationship with the federal government, Renstrom said he has been very impressed with the U.S. Forest Service response to the fire.
“The resources that they’re bringing in from all over the mountain states have been very impressive,” Renstrom said. “They have over 1,000 people working this (fire).”
The firefighting efforts have been severely hampered by the presence of drones that have shut down air operations, Renstrom said.
“Just so you know, (Sheriff) Cory Pulsipher is looking forward to slapping handcuffs on the person that has been flying that drone,” Renstrom said. “We are actively investigating it.”
After the emergency declaration, the commission returned to its regular agenda.
County Clerk/Auditor Kim Hafen announced the certified tax rate for 2016 of .000499. The rates were approved last December in the budget but were just recently audit-certified.
“As values have gone up across the county and to the assessor’s office, the tax rates are down,” Hafen said.
“The way property taxes work, as values go up, the rates go down, and the taxing entities receive essentially the same money as last year,” Hafen added. “This year, they receive what they did last year with the exception of new growth.”
In addition, the general obligation bond debt portion of property taxes – bonds that were approved by voters –went down by 17.1 percent because the county paid off some of the bonds early.
“In 2017, the taxpayers of the county will see another significant decrease in the tax rate for debt service,” Hafen said. Another bond refinance will save taxpayers nearly $1 million in interest over the remaining 20 years of the bond.
The commission also granted Ivins City $150,000 and agreed to loan the city up to an additional $150,000 for construction of a paved trail along Tuacahn Drive due to the “county-wide positive impact” the new trail will have.
This trail will connect to the new Sentierre resort being built on Tuacahn Drive and, per the proposal, will serve as part of plans to build trails providing access to the resort and Tuacahn Center for the Arts from the Snow Canyon and the Snow Canyon Parkway trails, which connect to the larger, multicity trail system.
The commission heard a presentation from Steven Caplin, governing board chairman for Dixie Regional Medical Center, and passed a resolution expressing appreciation for the hospital on its 40th anniversary of operation in Washington County. Intermountain Healthcare took over the county hospital in 1976.
“We’re just glad you’re not here to give the hospital back,” Commissioner Iverson said and laughed.
In November, Dixie Regional Medical Center announced an expansion to its River Road campus that will double the size of the hospital’s facilities and cost an estimated $300 million, making it the largest construction project in the history of the county.
In other business, the commission awarded a bid for a drainage project in Diamond Valley.
The commission also approved a public defender contract with attorney Nathan Reeve, filling one of two vacancies for the position, Cox said.
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