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Wildfire officials expect 'normal' fire season in Utah

Published: Thursday, May 22 2014 6:43 p.m. MDT

Fire engulfs homes in the Rose Canyon area of Herriman, Friday afternoon, June 29, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Officials from several fire agencies met Thursday to discuss the outlook for Utah's 2014 wildfire season. Initial indicators predict a "normal" wildfire season for the state, which means plenty of fire activity.

Field specialists across the state have sampled vegetation to examine its fuel moisture content — a measure of moisture in the leaves of plants that plays a critical role in the likelihood of ignition and spread of wildfire. While Utah still has areas of moderate to severe drought, conditions have significantly improved since the drought's peak in 2012.

Other states, including California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, are already well into a severely dry fire season, according to Shelby Law, a fire weather meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management.

"If we put things into context, Utah's drought is definitely not as severe as some of our neighbors right now," Law said.

The region is expected to enter an El Niño phase during the summer and fall, which may help to lower temperatures and increase humidity. But this summer will keep Utah's wildland firefighters busy, Law said.

"What this all boils down to is we're looking at a normal fire season, which, to be clear, normal in the state of Utah is to expect a lot of fire activity," she said. "We'll still see some large fires across the state. If I had to pinpoint any areas at this point, I'd probably be looking more at the western to southwest portions where those underlying drought conditions are still fairly severe."

Utah boasts a substantial arsenal of wildfire suppression equipment and personnel across multiple agencies, including hand crews, engines and aircraft.

The Salt Lake City Fire Department also recently purchased six new Type-6 wildfire engines, which carry hundreds of feet of fixed hose lines, chain saws and 400 gallons of water. The engines help city firefighters quickly suppress wildfires close to developed areas, according to Salt Lake Fire Capt. Scott Winkler.

"The vast majority of fires we see are human-caused," Winkler said. "With these engines, we're able to jump on them quickly."

The U.S. Forest Service recently added four large air tankers to its national firefighting fleet, which now has 21 large air tankers and more than 100 helicopters. One of the air tankers, a DC-10, cruises at 430 mph and carries up to 11,600 gallons of retardant.

The addition came in light of a recent shortage of large planes and "in the face of what is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the Southwest," the Forest Service stated in a news release.

Utah would have access to national resources should large fires spread beyond what local resources can handle, according to Cheryl Probert, deputy forest supervisor for the Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Wildland firefighters aren't trained or equipped to handle structure fires, so coordination with other agencies is often required across Utah's expanding wildland-urban interface. Interagency coordination has long been characteristic of Utah's firefighters, Probert said.

"We cooperate incredibly seamlessly on the suppression end of things," she said. "But we need to extend that cooperation to the prevention side."

That's not to say prevention efforts haven't been plentiful. Several areas in the state have been identified this year for projects that will reduce the risk of "uncharacteristic wildfires," Probert said. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service completed project work on more than 2 million acres across the nation.

Other prevention efforts include restrictions when environmental conditions are conducive to extreme fire behavior. While no restrictions are currently in place in Utah, activities such as campfires, fireworks, smoking and explosive shooting targets will not be allowed in some areas in the coming months, according to Tracy Dunford, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

"Every year we experience a lot of fires that are human-caused, which means they're preventable," Dunford said. "It's easy to be lulled into a sense of security when you look at how green things are around here. But it's not going to last. It's not going to be like that for very much longer."

Land managers encourage recreationists to stay informed on fire restrictions by visiting utahfireinfo.gov.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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