Drought and the effects of Operation Desert Storm may complicate state efforts to control wildfires this summer, said State Forester Richard Klason.
"We used to use National Guard crews for transportation and heavy equipment use," but more than 700 Utah Guardsmen from the 1457th Engineer Battalion are on active duty in Germany because of Operation Desert Storm, and it is not known when they will be sent home. Klason said state fire crews also depend on military-issue MREs - or Meals, Ready to Eat - that are currently in short supply because so many of the field rations have been sent to the Middle East."It's kind of a surprise to see all this happening," Klason said. "But it's only one thing we're a little concerned about for this summer." The main concern is about the potential for wildfires, which is heightened by five years of drought conditions in the state. Moisture during the past week will help ease the situation somewhat, but timber takes a long time to regain the moisture it loses in a drought and will still be fairly dry this summer.
State fire crews often work in concert with county crews and with firefighters from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. And it is not unusual during the summer fire months for crews to be transferred from state to state to help tackle the most threatening fires.
Drought conditions are so widespread in the West - from parts of Colorado to California - that firefighters may see a lot of territory this summer. It also means fire officials will have to carefully plan firefighting resources so as to not leave one area underprotected while firefighters are battling a wildfire in a neighboring state.
Unlike the Forest Service and BLM, the state typically is not able to hire temporary fire crews to work the summer fire season. The state does use crews of prisoners from the Utah State Prison that are organized into a firefighting team called the Flame-In-Goes and hopes to have access to between 90 and 100 inmates for fire crews.
That number includes 10 to 15 female inmates for the first time. The women, who call themselves "The Fallen Angels" are preparing, primarily, for support roles in the firefighting effort.
Klason said he would also like to hire additional personnel so each of the Division of Lands and Forestry wardens could have at least three people in initial response trucks. But the approximately $1.25 million forestry and fire control budget is already down about $100,000 from last year, and adding new workers would require a supplemental budget appropriation from the governor.
Supplemental appropriations were already required to pay last year's firefighting bills.