Blame Mom Nature for the conditions that let forest fires roar through northern Utah, but look to the stupidity of man for setting most of them.
Not only are the woods historically dry this year, but officials shudder when they think about what they could be like next summer."It's probably as dry as it's ever been," State Forester Dick Klason said of northern Utah's forest country.
If a carpenter were to buy lumber at a lumberyard, purchasing wood that has been dried in a kiln, it would have a moisture content of 10 or 15 percent. Yet some Utah outdoor areas "are down to 5 or 6 to 10 percent moisture content," Klason said. "That's really dry."
These dangerous conditions result from two parched summers, and the fact that last winter dumped only 50 to 70 percent of the normal snowfall. "It's just a cumulative impact that we're talking about," he said.
It could get much worse, depending on whether the drought continues through the fall and winter. This makes fire-control officers anxious about weather.
"A lot of folks would like to know if it's going to snow so they can ski," Klason said. "But I have a different reason."
Gov. Norm Bangerter could call out the National Guard to supply more manpower in fighting the fires. At Yellowstone National Park, Marine and Army personnel have been used to battle the gigantic blazes.
"We have used a variety of Guard equipment for crew transport primarily," Klason said.
A few weeks ago, Bangerter signed an order making it clear that the Guard is permitted to help in the fire emergency. It says the governor is aware of the fire problem and the Guard's expenses will be covered if units are needed.
The executive order allows Klason to contact units in case of an emergency, and ask for help.
But because National Guard units haven't been trained in firefighting, they might be in danger if called to a blaze. Also, people on the firelinehave to be in especially good physical condition.
So, "we normally have not used
the Guard as firefighters right out on the fireline." But Guardsmen are excellent in support positions, he said.
Still, calling out the Guard is a possibility, and that step will be considered "if things really get bad."
By the end of the winter-spring wet season, it was obvious that if Utah didn't get a lot more moisture, the northern part of the state would face extreme fire hazard. Then the summer was much hotter and drier than normal.
Neal Riffle, fire manager for Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said rangers have been running into a massive lack of cooperation.
Recently they found 30 to 40 campfires in areas of Wasatch National Forest that are under a fire closure. People are simply ignoring the closure, he said.
Sometimes campfires were left unattended. Others were doused by Forest Service officers while the campers stood watching.
"In some cases we issue a citation," Riffle said.
"All of those fires have a potential to be a wildfire, if we're not out there patrolling."
He is mystified by the lack of cooperation.
"I guess they (campers or smokers who toss their cigarette butts in closed areas) just don't have an understanding of the real conditions out there. They feel that when they've got a fire in a ring of rock or whatever, that it's under control; that there's no problem; that they can put it out. And that isn't the case."
Of all the fires northern Utah suffered last week, only one was caused by lightning. All others were caused by man, mostly by campfires.