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Utah expands aerial firefighting capabilities ahead of potentially hot, dry summer

SALT LAKE CITY – Fortunately, Utah’s wildfire season has started slowly.

However, the state's fire officials expect the fire situation to improve soon. Meteorological summer begins this weekend, and updated long-range forecasts continue to predict Utah will experience warmer than average temperatures and slightly higher than normal dryness rates between Saturday and August 31.

According to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, the first half of June will be particularly hot than usual. Temperatures along the Wasatch Front could reach 90 degrees on Saturday, but the prospect of warmer temperatures is expected to remain the prevailing trend through at least June 11. There is also a chance of rain and thunderstorms.

Both immediate and long-term trends raise potential wildfire danger, but the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is also expanding its firefighting efforts this year, announcing Wednesday that it will increase its helicopter operations to respond more quickly to new outbreaks.

“The addition of this helicopter crew is the next logical step in expanding our flight capabilities within the division,” Mike Melton, deputy state fire marshal for the division’s flight area, said in a statement.

Prevent new beginnings

Utah's drought situation is the best it's been since at least 2020. The U.S. Drought Monitor lists about a quarter of Utah as “abnormally dry,” including less than 1% of the state in moderate drought. As a result, the wildfire season has not been as active as in other years.

The largest fire to date was the Leota Fire in the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in Uintah County, which burned about 140 acres in April. The Great Basin Coordination Center says Utah is experiencing normal fire conditions as it begins meteorological summer.

That could change, however, if the long-range forecast comes to fruition. The center's latest forecasts predict that northwest Utah will experience above-average fire risks through July. That's largely because the long-range forecast predicts that the southwest monsoon may be “delayed or weaker” this summer.

“The focus over the next few months will be on monitoring precipitation patterns and temperatures, as well as fuel growth,” the institute wrote in its outlook for May to August. A weaker monsoon season could lead to “significant fuel depletion” and a “better likelihood of above-normal fire potential” this summer.

New plant growth is one reason for concern early in the season. Officials with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands say grass and shrubs have grown “tall and thick” in many places due to better precipitation and above-average snowpack over the past two winters.

They say this could lead to “extreme wildfire conditions” once the rains dry up.

“It is critical that we remain vigilant and monitor the risk of wildfires this year,” Kayli Guild, the department’s prevention and communications coordinator, said in a statement last week.

Utah's annual fire season begins Saturday and runs through October. Most non-agricultural fires are prohibited. Agricultural fires are allowed with proper permits and after notifying the nearest fire department.

According to the state’s fire officials, Utah residents should also follow “Fire Sense” guidelines this summer:

  • Make sure your vehicle does not have dragging chains, the wheel bearings are well lubricated and the tires have the correct pressure.
  • Extinguish fires completely before leaving a campsite. Depending on conditions, some locations may implement campfire restrictions this summer.
  • Find a “suitable” background for target shooting that is free of rocks and dry grass. Bring a fire extinguisher. Exploding targets are not allowed on public property.
  • Keep Chinese lanterns, sky candles, fire balloons and sky lanterns away from dry vegetation.
  • Fireworks are permitted in designated areas from 2 to 5 July and from 22 to 25 July.

Expansion of defense

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is hiring a new helicopter crew to respond to new fires. The Diamond Fork Helitack crew will be based at the Spanish Fork Airport during the summer and will house up to eight wildfire fighters to assist with the “initial attack” when a new fire breaks out in the state.

The Type 3 helicopter — which has been contracted to the state through Mountain West Helicopter for the next five years — can be used to send firefighters and equipment to new fires in Utah. It can also lift a bucket of water to assist with aerial firefighting efforts.

It is the helicopter commissioned by the state to complement the fleets of the federal authorities.

“The addition of this aircraft and crew will allow us to expand our heavy-lift aircraft capabilities by being able to rapidly deliver ground troops into inaccessible areas and the wilderness-urban interface,” Melton said.

Anna Harden

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