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

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 6:41 a.m. MDT

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Burned foothills after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned foothills after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"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.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Climate change suggests an increase in wildfire frequency and greater fire intensity. McInerney said no matter what one believes regarding climate change, the real-life swings experienced in Utah are at the very least something to ponder.

"We are doing climate change if you look at the research," he said. "These conditions are mimicking what these guys have researched."

Both McInerney and Doug Inkley, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said fires are nature's cleansers and aren't necessarily a bad thing.

"Fire is a natural cycle to the environment," McInerney said. "It is a good thing; it changes vegetation."

The problem, Inkley said, is the intensity of the fires playing out in Utah, Colorado and the rest of the West.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"These are like natural fires on steroids," he said. "They are much more intense, very hot and damaging and very patchy."

The fires feed on invasive plants such as cheat grass and burn so hot they leave bare mineral soil exposed, leading to rapid runoff in the spring and more flash flooding. As a result, trees and other vegetation don't have the time to retain as much moisture, and they dry out more quickly in the next go-round.

Inkley said it is a vicious cycle.

"We really have no reason to expect this trend to change at all. Short term, I don't know how we undo it."

Beetle troubles

A steadily warming climate has also tipped the balance in the natural relationship between tree-boring beetles and the trees they infest.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"Spruce beetles and mountain pine beetles have been around for millions of years. They are sort of part of the forest," said Barbara Bentz, a research entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station. "If you don't have them that suggests something is wrong."

Milder springs, however, have led to a tree mortality rate due to beetle infestations that has not been seen in 150 years, Bentz said.

"It's hard to say if this has happened before and what happens when this happens," because it is outside of modern man's experience, she said.

Swaths of forests full of dead and dying trees play a role in the intensity of wildfires, but there's debate and disagreement in the science and fire communities over the extent of the role.

Burned foothills after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned foothills after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"There's a lot of controversy over how much difference it makes, but the simple physics can be summarized pretty easily," said Matt Jolley, a fire research ecologist with the Forest Service's Missoula Fire Lab. "When you look at ignition criteria — how much energy it takes to ignite a (beetle)-attacked tree — they ignite faster from the same amount of heat and burn faster."

What can't be ignored is that the infestations — by one beetle species or another —  aren't showing any signs of being effectively controlled by what man can do.

Warmer and drier spring seasons throughout the Western United States have helped the beetles flourish; 6.8 million acres of forests were impacted by infestations of the mountain pine beetle in 2010.

That winter, however, was followed by a record wet and delayed spring that Bentz said for the first time since 2003 caused a substantial decrease in the number of trees killed off by mountain pine beetles.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

In Utah, for example, trees killed by mountain pine beetles decreased by 75 percent in 2011.

Spruce beetle kills, however, have remained relatively unchanged in Utah over that two-year period and one Forest Service supervisory entomologist said it will only get worse — with prime recreation places like Big Cottonwood Canyon at risk as the beetles march north.

"I'm very concerned; there's a lot of private property that can't be accessed," said Steve Munson.

Even with access, treatment is expensive and has to be handled individually, tree by tree, because the chemicals have to cover the entire trunk and reach upward 40 to 50 feet.

"We can protect individual trees with pesticides; we cannot protect forests."

In a 150,000-acre area on the Wasatch Plateau east of Manti, Munson said visitors will find a lone spruce tree. It is the only one that was treated by pesticide.

Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires  and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Burned hillsides after the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County. A look at what got us here in this volatile season of erupting wildfires and what forest ecologists have to say about why it is happening and what we should be mindful of Friday, June 29, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Fire suppression backfires

Forest fire ecologists like Mike Jenkins and others like Munson believe a century-long tradition of putting out forest fires has boomeranged to man's own detriment — and to the peril of forests' health.

"Wildfires are a common feature of Western forests; they have happened for tens of thousands of years, long before we were here," said Jenkins, a professor of forest fire ecology at Logan's Utah State University. "My personal opinion is the more fires the better. But we've grown up under a fire-suppression regime."

Fires promote new growth, clear dead, diseased and dying trees with some species of pine trees, produce the heat necessary for pine cones to release seeds to foster new saplings.

A rancher drives his cattle over I-15 and away from the approaching fire as crews work to protect homes at the New Harmony fire Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) A rancher drives his cattle over I-15 and away from the approaching fire as crews work to protect homes at the New Harmony fire Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Fires also clear away invasive grasses and the undergrowth in forests — the shrubs, smaller trees and grasses that if left unchecked year after year turn into an overgrowth of fuel to create even bigger fires.

Jenkins said he finds it ironic and sad that so few tax dollars are spent on aggressive clearing of such vegetation.

"There's unlimited dollars and resources available for fire suppression. The response is heroic. There is nothing that is not available. But there is nothing like that available in advance of the ignition," he said.

Jenkins said letting fires burn has become increasingly problematic for two very obvious reasons: urban encroachment and air pollution considerations.

"People are building their homes in the wildlands, not creating a defensible space around their property but are expecting a level of protection from the government or some higher power which sometimes isn't going to happen," Jenkins said.

As more and more people take to the mountains for recreation or to live, the more fires that will happen, Jenkins said, stressing there are only two causes of wildfires: man and lightning.

While it is paramount to protect life and property, he said even letting a favorite, abandoned camp site succumb to flames is unpopular. Man is in love with the forests.

"It's very difficult," he said. "People become attached to it and they view it as that is the way it has always been and will always be. To understand that there will be change in that place in their lifetime, but it will return to something similar in 200 to 300 years, is not very comforting."

The 1988 wildfires that ravaged more than a third of Yellowstone National Park are an example of how publicly distressing it was to watch an iconic treasure burn.

"There's been a strong public mandate for fire suppression," Jenkins said, "and as a result, agencies have gotten really good at it."

A ravaged West

This week, the National Interagency Fire Center ramped up its wildfire preparedness level to an alert stage only declared two other times in the past 20 years.

In Colorado, an Army battalion is being trained to be ground firefighters and the nation's four remaining specialized Defense Department C-130s were activated. The worst fire in Colorado's history claimed two people and others remained missing Saturday.

In Utah, a body found near a cabin claimed in the Wood Hollow fire last week may be yet another human fatality attributed to wildfires. And two aerial firefighters were killed June 4 when their air tanker crashed into rugged terrain near the Utah-Nevada border.

Nationally, fire suppression annually costs the U.S.  Forest Service more than $3 billion and that budget is fast being consumed by this fire season's hellish start.

People are fleeing and homes and cabins are burning. Sheep and horses have been charred and ranchers throughout the West are desperately trying to move their stock to safe ground, and edible ground.

"We are pretty close if not already in a crisis situation," said Utah Farm Bureau's Randy Parker.

A Wyoming rancher called Parker several weeks ago, looking to find forage in Utah for his thousands of cows because of a range fire. In Utah, with herds being chased away by a half dozen major fires still burning, ranchers are looking to Idaho or elsewhere for good grazing land.

It's hard to find.

By June 24, the Natural Resources Conservation Service's drought report said only 26 percent of Utah's pasture and range land was in good or excellent condition, compared with 39 percent of the landscapes deemed poor or very poor.

"There's a lot of chess playing going on with producers right now trying to get ahead of the curve on this thing," Parker said.

Even before the fires, grazing for livestock was reduced in the forests around Fish Lake in Utah, and Parker fears more cuts as feed dries up and mountain summer ranges burn.

So, months from now when the first snow falls and the fire season is nothing more than a bad memory for the majority of people, the real costs of rebuilding and replanting  will begin.

In the metamorphosis of recovery, Jenkins and others are hopeful there will be some re-thinking — such as where to build in the mountains, how much money to spend on forest health or if earlier grazing should accompany those earlier springs to cut down on cheat grass.

"Every year is a fire year and some will be more eventful than others," Jenkins said. "We need to do everything we can to reduce those hazardous fuels and protect that urban interface. Big fires will happen again."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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