Drought, high temperatures, lightning keep southern Utah firefighters busy

Published: Thursday, July 3 2014 6:19 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 3 2014 6:19 p.m. MDT

A plane drops fire retardant on a wildfire in Washington County on Thursday, July 3, 2014. Hundreds of lightning strikes have caused fires in southern Utah, northern Arizona and eastern Nevada over the last 48 hours.

Alex Cabrero, Deseret News

ST. GEORGE — Extremely dry conditions plus approximately 1,000 lightning strikes in 48 hours across northern Arizona, western Nevada and southwestern Utah means firefighters are busy this holiday weekend.

Hundreds of firefighters are trying to put out close to two dozen wildfires burning near Enterprise, Gunlock, Veyo and other places in and around southern Utah. The area is in its third year of the drought.

Drought forecasts show it may be a bad year for the area, Dixie National Forest spokesman Joseph Harris said.

“So usually the third week in July is when the monsoon shows up, and it kind of gives us a reprieve. It’s hard to look long-term at weather patterns, but all the weather experts are telling us that could be coming in late this year,” Harris said. “So we didn’t have a lot of snow down here at all, a really light snow year, not very much rain coming in, and if we miss the monsoons as well, it could be really bad for us.”

At Gunlock State Park, water levels are so low that the boat ramp is being closed July 6, one of the earliest times anyone there can remember. For fire crews, finding water to fight wildfires can be difficult.

“Our snowpack was half of normal,” Mike Melton, area fire management officer for the Utah State Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “Water supply out in the wild lands where we may have been able to get water out of a stream or out of a pond or those things, a lot of those resources aren’t available to us this year.”

Fire managers warn that almost anything can spark a fire, so fire restrictions are in place; meaning no open fires are allowed except in approved camp grounds.

"We've got what are called light and flashy fuels, which means we've got a lot of cured grasses, and a little teeny tiny spark with a little bit of wind, and bam, it's gone. And you aren't catching it, you know?" Harris said.

More fire crews had to be called in from out of the area to help battle the wildfires.

“We’ve got a lot of firefighters here locally that do a good job, but our capacity has been exceeded a little bit, so we’re calling in some help from some outside areas,” Harris said.

Fire managers want everyone to enjoy the Fourth of July and say they would appreciate it if everyone was extra careful while in the area.

"Mother Nature is throwing us enough of a curveball right now with the lightning strikes that, if the public can be cooperative, and not add and compound the problem, we'd much appreciate that," Melton said.

Email: acabrero@deseretnews.com, vvo-duc@deseretnews.com

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