'The West is burning,' and Utah fire officials fear repeat of last year
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Summer officially starts Friday, fireworks go on sale in Utah Saturday, and fire officials are hoping they don't have a repeat of last year.
It was a year ago this weekend when thousands of residents in Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain were evacuated due to a raging wildfire.
On Thursday, state, city and local officials made a plea to the public to be smart and not have a repeat of last year's fire season.
"People's lives were at stake and their homes and animals were in danger. Some residents are still trying to put their lives back together from the fires that happened last year. Let's do what we can to avoid a repeat of last year and avoid what Colorado is seeing this year," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said during a joint press conference with the Unified Fire Authority.
Unified Fire Marshal Steven Higgs said the conditions for a big fire in Utah this year are about the same as last year.
"It looks like we're in for a difficult fire year again this year. It's dry. It's hotter than normal. Humidity levels are low and we've had a lot of wind. That is a recipe for extreme fire behavior and occurrence," he said. "I really see this year mirroring last year in many ways."
The same fire restrictions that were in place last year are in place again this year. Fireworks are banned in many of Salt Lake County's foothills. But Higgs said that does not mean there is an outright ban on fireworks in the county.
"There are people who would like to outlaw fireworks altogether. I don't know that that's really a reasonable approach. I think that being safe and being conscientious in your use of the fireworks and making sure you're using them in an appropriate way and in a manner that isn't going to cause a problem, then we can still enjoy that aspect of this holiday season and yet still keep everybody safe."
Even if a person is in an area that allows fireworks, Higgs said officials are asking that all aerial fireworks be kept at least 300 feet away from no fireworks zones.
"Even in those areas, we've got to use good judgment. And if there's any doubt, put it out," he said.
There have already been several major fires in other Western states this year, including Colorado, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Higgs said the public needs to really heed the warning of officials to prevent similar fires from happening in Utah.
"The West is burning. We're just asking everyone to please be cautious about what you're doing. Be mindful of the potential," he said. "The biggest thing is trying to get people to conform to the areas of closure and being reasonable and responsible with the use of fireworks near those closure areas."
Similar pleas were made last summer, yet there were large fires started from people setting off fireworks and from target shooters. Violating the fireworks ban in restricted areas is an infraction. But a person found guilty could also be billed the cost of suppressing any fire caused by it.
Higgs said if educating the public doesn't work, police may be forced to clamp down on enforcement and prosecution.
McAdams also cautioned residents on Thursday, particularly those in the foothills, to take measures to prevent the chances of their homes burning in a fire. He said debris around the homes and on their roofs should be cleared. A "defensible space" area should be created around homes. Should a home catch fire or a family forced to evacuate, McAdams said residents should have an evacuation plan already in place and a 72-hour emergency supplies kit available complete with vital documents and needed medications.
Information on where fireworks are restricted can be found at www.unifiedfire.org and publicsafety.utah.gov/firemarshal/RestrictedFireworksAreas.html.
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