The 1989 fire season in Utah is off to an early start, sparking concern among fire officials that after two years of below-normal moisture the number of blazes could exceed last year's record total.
So far, three fires have consumed more than 1,000 acres, a scorching start that is 10 times the normal amount of charred land for this time of year. It follows a winter of precipitation that was only 73 percent of normal statewide.Gary Cornell, fire management specialist for the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry, said fuel moisture content is very low and it won't take much to ignite a fire.
"A good deal of the West did not receive the precipitation it needed to offset the last couple years of drought," he said. "Fuel moisture content is only 50-70 percent of what it would normally be at this time of year. If we have a warm, dry summer, we may be down in the 10-20 percent range."
State Lands and Forestry responded to nearly 1,000 fires last year, the worst season ever for number of fires and the cost of fighting them. During an average season the agency would respond to about 600 fires.
Firefighting efforts by the state, Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management cost about $10 million combined in 1988, with the state spending nearly $4 million.
If the extended forecast is accurate, the weather may offer some reprieve. Meteorologist Bill Alder of the National Weather Service said temperatures should be around normal and precipitation above normal through July.
Still, he remains concerned because warm temperatures in April and early May melted most of the mountain snowpack.
"That means the season will start out somewhat early, especially in the south, where it only received traces of precipitation in April," Alder said. Wally Josephson, assistant state fire manager officer for the BLM, said the fire outlook depends on amounts of moisture and exactly where it falls.
"We expect the same number of fires in specific areas. Some may not be as serious, others may be more serious. It depends on the location.
"For instance, lower-elevation fires may be less intense due to the sparse grass growth this spring. But upper-elevation fires in timber areas that don't depend on grass to carry the fire may be more intense," Josephson said.
Regionally, fire officials expect a busy season but nothing approaching last summer's inferno.
The Forest Service Intermountain Region in Ogden is responsible for 16 national forests in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho and western Wyoming. Clee Pearson, regional dispatcher, said the most tinder-dry areas are in southern Utah and Nevada.
Last year's record fire season burned more than just acreage. Bob Davis, helicopter base foreman for the Forest Service's Ogden Ranger District, said that because the Federal Fire Fund in Washington, D.C., is depleted, more effort will be made this year to determine the cause of each blaze in order to recover costs.
Davis said prosecutions for starting fires could result in a fine equal to the cost of extinguishing them.
Eliminating man-caused fires would do away with between 80 and 90 percent of all fires, Davis said. He said most are caused by carelessness - unattended or out-of-control campfires, discarded cigarettes and children playing with matches.