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Utah's wildfire season heats up

Published: Wednesday, July 7 2010 10:19 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The cool rains of May have long since evaporated on the valley floors, and with the onset of July's blustery hot winds, officials are warning of increasingly volatile conditions when it comes to wildland fires.

"Things are drying out," said Jason Curry, spokesman with the Utah Division of Forestry. "We've reached that time when people really need to start thinking about being careful."

With an unusually wet weather pattern clustered over much of the state toward the end of May and into June, fire "fuels" such as cheat grass are thriving — and starting to get dry.

"They may look green from a distance, but if you look at the base of the grasses, they are starting to 'cure' out," Curry said. "That cheat grass becomes really receptive to any spark that lands on it."

Heading into Memorial Day weekend this year, campers and other outdoor recreationists were greeted with unseasonably cool temperatures, rain and snowpack that kept many campgrounds closed beyond what's typical.

Snow was predicted as late as June 16 in the higher elevations, and that snowpack and cooler weather have largely kept the high mountain areas behind in the start of the fire season.

"We did not have a lot of hot days," said Kathy Jo Pollock, spokeswoman for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Last week's high 90s, however, changed conditions in the lower elevations, and Curry predicted that as Pioneer Day nears and recreation picks up, more human-caused fires are inevitable.

"Fires are definitely happening, with multiple starts our people are responding to," she said, noting several blazes in Tooele County and small wildland fires breaking out farther north in Davis and Weber counties.

Human-caused fires often have "signatures" that Curry said vary by region — target shooting in the west desert, for example, or campers at higher elevations who fail to properly extinguish campfires.

"They wake up in the morning, there's no smoke and the last time they saw flames was the night before," Curry said. "They pack up their stuff and leave, not realizing that under the ashes there are hot coals. The wind picks up and carries them into surrounding vegetation."

Curry termed last year's fire season in Utah as "mild," with an estimated 660 fires, half of which were human-caused and only about six that were significant at all.

That paled in comparison to 2007, when 363,000 acres burned in the Milford Flat Fire alone, making it the state's worst wildfire in history and claiming the lives of two people. The blaze cost $4 million to fight and another $17 million for reseeding efforts. That same year, the Neola North fire killed three men and scarred more than 43,000 acres. Lightning-caused fires were scattered throughout the state that year, charring lands as far north as Box Elder County and south to Zion National Park in Washington County.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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