Heat, wind, and no rain just part of a troubling Western recipe for explosive fires

Published: Saturday, June 30 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Oppressive heat pushes from a clear sky on a Friday as afternoon winds begin to kick up. A vehicle pulls off a road, onto grass inching high from a previous year's rains, but this year the grass and brush is bone dry, crisped from week after week of no rain.

The perfect storm has arrived as the vehicle ignites the grass and Herriman begins to burn. The fire capped a week of intense fire-perfect conditions throughout Utah and the entire West as the 2012 fire season is bringing staggering losses with no signs of relief.

Just this week, temperatures topped 100 degrees from Tucson, Az., to Glasgow, Mont., and large wildfires had erupted across the West — from New Mexico to Montana and California to Colorado.

In Utah, eight fires burned more than 221 square miles by Saturday, an area roughly the size of Chicago. Friday and Saturday's fire in Herriman claimed four houses, damaged others, and the acreage count had reached 611 acres.

In Idaho near Pocatello, more than 60 homes have burned, and in both Utah and Colorado there has been loss of life with hundreds of homes lost in explosive fires that have yet to be contained.

The factors at play this year portend a difficult future and some say changes need to be made in policy and approach, not just from public officials, but all who choose to call the West home.

Bone dry

A drought report by the Natural Resources Conservation Service said the West is "bone dry," with more than half the top soil in Utah and Wyoming short or very short of moisture, and that's far better than states like Colorado at 90 percent and New Mexico at 93 percent dryness.

The recipe that produced this relentless and early fire season has been fine-tuned over the past two years because of how much snow and rain fell — or did not fall — in the winter and spring seasons.

This past year's snowpack in the lower Rocky Mountain Region was abysmal, followed by a hot dry spring that brought the snow runoff season to an end a month earlier than usual.

"This year, we have not had rain since the snow melted off," said Brian Uriona, hydrologist with the NRCS' Snow Survey in Salt Lake City. He said when June's numbers for measurable precipitation are tallied, they will be "ridiculously low."

It was a far different situation the year before. Record-breaking snowpack and a runoff delayed in Utah well into July. Such lush conditions over the summer of 2011 led to a proliferation of "fuel" for fires — tall fields of cheat grass and other foliage that was given ample time to turn dry this year.

Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said people tend to forget, it's been hot before, it's been dry before. But what is causing eyebrows to raise is the extreme variation from one year to the next.

"We have shifted gears. We've gone from a record-breaking spring that was cold and wet one year to being record-breaking hot and dry," McInerney said. "Seventy percent of the United States is under some sort of drought category and the entire Southwest is even drier, including Utah."

Other wildfire factors

Other factors are also in play when it comes to this season's eruption of wildfires, with ingredients like climate change, beetle infestations, urban encroachment and even public relations adding to problems.

One study by a Colorado university points to a five-fold increase in the amount of area burned in the Western United States during the past 15 years due to earlier snowmelt, higher temperatures and longer fire seasons —  which in some areas have been extended by as many as 78 days.

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