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Summer is causing concern for Utah firefighters

Kyle Dunphey

(Utah News Dispatch) It may seem contradictory, but two consecutive winters with above-average snowfall have authorities concerned that Utah could see large and dangerous wildfires this summer.

That's because a healthy snowpack leads to more vegetation. Now, after the unusually hot and dry spring, that vegetation is drying out, becoming an ideal fuel for wildfires.

Chris Delainey, Utah's fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management, said fire conditions earlier this summer were similar to those in years like 2020 or 2012, when the state was hit by devastating fires.

“We have more grass and more fuel than we've had in a long time. We're seeing temperatures that are breaking records in early June. I'm asking people to take this seriously,” he said. “We're seeing conditions that are consistent with seasons where we've lost homes, killed people … conditions are coming together that are causing fire managers and fire chiefs a lot of concern.”

Utah Governor Spencer Cox called it the “perfect recipe for wildfire season.”

“You can look around here and see that the fuel rise is much higher than it was two years ago,” Cox said on a hot Monday afternoon at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. “You can feel it. We have above-average temperatures, very hot for June. It's much hotter than it should be this time of year.”

Cox spoke during the annual Fire Sense press conference, where representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Utah Office of Tourism and Salt Lake City Fire Department urged Utahns to be cautious when recreationally using the state's public lands this summer. About half of all wildfires in the state are human-caused — in 2020, 4 out of 5 wildfires were started by humans and burned over 100,000 acres in Utah.

“We desperately need people to step up,” Cox said. “Let's be smart and make sure Utah stays safe this summer.”

For Utah residents, that means following state and Forest Service guidelines for campfires, making sure heavy machinery is in compliance, avoiding dragging chains or other metal objects behind trailers and vehicles, and following proper regulations when target shooting, such as shooting into a bullet trap and not using prohibited ammunition.

Chris Milne, deputy chief of the Salt Lake City Fire Department, said homeowners should set up buffer zones during the summer, which is essentially the area between a home and vegetation that can burn. Embers from a wildfire can spread for a mile, and Milne said a buffer zone can prevent new fires from starting.

“You buy time to protect your home from fire and be able to evacuate it if necessary,” Milne said, adding that it allows firefighters to work more effectively.

Basil Newmerzhycky, senior meteorologist with the Great Basin Coordination Center, an interagency group that includes the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and state agencies, said fire season has already begun. Although the fire is now 100% contained, the Rockville Fire in Washington County burned about 73 acres of land over the weekend.

The scale of the Rockville Fire could put Utah in trouble — Newmerzhycky said fires this time of year are usually about 10 acres in size, not 50 to 100 acres. If the state continues to dry out, conditions will worsen.

“We expect the fire risk to increase significantly in July and especially in the second half of July,” he said.

Anna Harden

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