Warming weather sparks worry over wildfires

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 5:53 p.m. MDT

The area burned in the Rosecrest and Machine Gun fires in Herriman on Thursday, May 9, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — State fire officials expect the warm, drying trend this weekend and into early next week to jump-start Utah's 2013 wildfire season, and crews are on the alert.

"This weekend, with the forecast for several warm, dry days in a row, that is certainly anticipated to result in some fires," said Jason Curry, spokesman for the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The National Weather Service in Salt Lake City is forecasting a daytime high of 87 on Sunday. By Monday, it will be 91 and windy. Utah's Dixie is expected to be several degrees higher.

Snow may persist in the higher elevations of the mountains, but the lower rangelands — especially in the northern half of the state — are already losing moisture.

"We are drying out fast," said Troy Forrest, manager of the state Department of Agriculture's grazing improvement program.

Forrest is part of a multiagency Utah task force established by Gov. Gary Herbert to develop far-reaching strategies and ways to deal with catastrophic wildfires.

The ultimate goal is to get a handle on the blazes before they reach a level of catastrophe by zeroing in on those geographic areas where the most "high-value" losses could occur.

The state has been divided up into five distinct regions that have representation at the local, county, state and federal levels. Membership includes conservation and environmental organizations, the military, county commissioners and federal land management agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

In Forrest's region — Box Elder, Rich, Cache and Tooele counties — he sees the fire season coming on early because of the condition of the range and the pitiful amount of snowfall it saw this last season.

"Vegetation is already drying out because we have just not had the moisture," he said.

The majority of the state is in moderate to severe drought, with the exception of two patches. One, in a northwestern chunk of Box Elder County, is classified as abnormally dry; the other, in Tooele County bordering Nevada, is in extreme drought.

Curry said fire crews have been training and a lot of attention has been paid to getting rid of the grasses or "fuels" that can make a fire worse. Several prescribed burns have already been held throughout the state to help temper a fire's appetite.

Because of last year's drought and fire season, there's generally not as much vegetation this season, but that changes the higher the elevation is, he noted.

Fire officials are cautiously holding out hope that this season will not duplicate the disastrous impacts of 2012 and, in fact, turn out milder.

The Eastern Great Basin Coordination Center that serves Boise south into all of Utah and the Arizona Strip is calling for "normal" fire potential in May.

In June, however, southern Utah is expected to become increasingly vulnerable to wildfire due to weather and dried out grasses.

Curry said last year's fire season peaked in June and early July. This year, the anticipation is for a more normal start of late June and into July and August.

Last year's wildfires in Utah burned nearly a half million acres and cost an estimated $50 million in firefighting costs.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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