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August scorches in Salt Lake as fire season persists

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 5 2012 5:11 p.m. MDT

Wildfire near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Wildfire near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — August scorched at the Salt Lake City International Airport, recording the highest mean temperature since 1994 of nearly 82 degrees.

This summer was the second hottest there since 2007.

National Weather Service officials say it was the mild nights that pushed the record over the edge. Summer is continuing to wind down, but the hot and dry conditions — particularly in the northern half of the state — have led to a fire season unwilling to exit gracefully.

Against this backdrop, with a new fire erupting Wednesday in Wanship prompting a temporary evacuation of residents, Salt Lake's watershed managers are keeping a watchful eye on the arid hillsides above the Salt Lake Valley.

Firefighters work near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Firefighters work near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"Things are pretty dry out there in the lower elevations," said Patrick Nelson, the city's watershed supervisor. "It is way drier this year," he added, noting urban creeks flowed into December of 2011, and stopped flowing in May of this year.

On Tuesday, caretakers of the valley's chief source of water supplies reiterated the continuing ban on campfires in its recreation areas in Parley and City Creek canyons. The ban includes picnic sites at City Creek, as well as Affleck Park campground and the George Washington Picnic Park area in Parleys Canyon.

Of particular concern is the city's desire to avoid a scenario that played out in the Denver metropolitan area as the result of wildfires that caused significant issues endangering culinary water supplies.

Wildfire near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Wildfire near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"We hope to have no large fires that are out of control in the watershed area," Nelson said.

Florence Reynolds, the city's water quality and treatment administrator, said huge fires would create immense problems for treatment plants that have direct stream flow systems in two of the Wasatch canyons. Those treatment plants have intake valves that take water right out of the creeks for delivery below. Because there are no reservoirs or other on-site storage, water impairment after a fire would be difficult to combat because sediment and contaminants would basically plug the system.

"It would pose all kinds of water quality problems," Reynolds said.

Workers control a fire near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Workers control a fire near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

The latest numbers compiled by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in the state climate report show August was overly kind to the southern half of the state, which recorded a whopping 187 percent of average in new moisture. Those storms soaked the area with between 1 inch and 8 inches of precipitation, which helped soil moisture levels rebound significantly.

That replenishment of the soil, if it holds, will help with better spring runoff conditions.

In the north, however, it is another story, with August precipitation that was 26 percent of normal in the Weber River basin area. Reservoir storage capacity in that area is just over 50 percent, and statewide, reservoir storage is at 64 percent of capacity, down 7 percent from July.

Firefighters work near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Firefighters work near Wanship, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

The grim news, too, is that 15 reservoirs throughout Utah are at less than 25 percent of storage capacity,

Water managers say the storage is enough going into the fall, but a wet performance of winter and spring will be key for 2013.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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