A high fire potential in northern Utah has forest and range land officials readying equipment and training fire crews earlier than usual to prepare for inevitable summer fires.
Helicopters, smoke-jumping aircraft and air tankers are being shuffled around to areas with the highest seasonal fire risk, and federal agencies are preparing to increase their firefighting budgets in case predictions for a dry summer materialize.A fire season severity index calculated by the Forest Service currently lists the Utah situation as "worse than average," and that rating could change to "significantly worse than average" if current predictions hold through the end of June, said Doug Bird, chief of aviation and fire management for the Forest Service's regional office in Ogden.
No restrictions have been announced for recreational areas that will be open by the Memorial Day holiday, but restrictions are possible, even likely, later in the summer.
The dry 1987 summer and below-average precipitation during the winter in northern Utah has left trees and brush with a below-average moisture content, boosting the fire danger. Ironically, rainstorms during the coming weeks could actually make the fire danger worse because the moisture would promote the growth of range grasses that become dry enough to burn later in the summer.
According to a Bureau of Land Management report, an average of 106,871 acres of public lands burned in Utah during each of the past five years. The BLM has documented 11 fires in Utah so far this year and estimates the potential for fire is worse than in 1987.
About 300 fires occurred on Forest Service land in Utah during 1987, and dry conditions make the potential for at least that many fires this year a real possibility.
Beginning in April, officials from the various agencies that control public lands begin to review weather data, soil conditions and the moisture content levels in plants to make a pre-season estimate of the fire danger during the coming fire season, Bird said.
"We do this once a week in various places," he said. "We add up all of those things, then make a reasonable guess of what the severity is going to be."
Fire-damaged BLM lands in Utah cost about $1.6 million to rehabilitate during 1987, and the agency has already requested additional money to fight fires during 1988. Nationwide, the BLM alone has requested $48.1 million to support firefighters and rehabilitation work.
The Forest Service has budgeted $400,000 to $500,000 just for firefighting in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest this year and is prepared to ask for emergency money if that becomes necessary, Bird said.
Most firefighters for the BLM and Forest Service are seasonal employees that go to work when schools let out in June, but some fire crews are being outfitted early because of the increased fire potential, said Wally Josephson, assistant state fire management officer.
The BLM will hire about 150 temporary firefighters this summer. The Forest Service has 300 rangers spread throughout the Great Basin area whose primary responsibility is fighting fires, and 1,500 engineers and recreation rangers who can be called on to help fight fires if they are needed, Bird said.
The Forest Service is also establishing contacts with Job Corps offices in the Weber Basin so summer fire crews can be assembled as needed.
From now through the end of September and possibly into October, air and ground patrols will be making daily fire patrols, and fire lookouts will be established in the more remote mountain areas.
While all Forest Service and BLM rangers are trained to look for signs of fire, many reports - about 60 percent - come from the general public, Bird said.
Many fires are also reported to the Interagency Fire Center by airline pilots who see smoke while flying over Utah, said dispatcher J.R. Davis.
Lightning is blamed for as many as 90 percent of the fires each year, but fires started by people cause the most damage, "because they start them on lowlands where more resources can be hurt," Bird said.