Instead of calling it summer in Utah, some might dub it fire restriction season — and it's begun.

Combined state and federal agencies announced Wednesday fire restrictions on all public lands and unincorporated state and private lands in Washington County and areas along the Utah/Arizona border starting June 30.

Additionally, Zion National Park officials don't want anyone to so much as smoke a cigarette while hiking their park's trails or start a campfire, even in developed campgrounds, out of fear of a wildfire catching hold in Zion's abundant, albeit unfortunate, supply of cheatgrass.

"The slightest spark can cause it," said David Eaker, fire information and education specialist for Zion.

The wet winter and spring throughout Utah was a blessing and good for water supplies, but a curse in terms of supporting the growth of lots of "light fuel," grasses that when dried out can be a buffet for a hungry wildfire, according to Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

So, if this summer is hot enough and if it gets dry enough, "We will probably introduce restrictions in other areas as that happens," Curry said.

As of next Monday, open fires of any kind are banned in the restricted areas, allowing only for campfires and charcoal fires in approved fire pits and grills "in developed recreation sites and picnic areas and permanently improved places of habitation that meet certain specifications or except as otherwise authorized."

If all of that's too confusing, consider that anyone who even accidentally starts a wildfire, regardless of the cause, may be asked to pay for the cost to fight it, Curry said. "You are liable for it — that's what the law says," he added.

Eaker said a violation of the restrictions in Zion could result in a $5,000 fine or jail time. In the meantime, he said reseeding efforts in areas of the park plagued by cheatgrass are evolving and will hopefully out-compete the grass for a less fire-friendly environment.

Curry's advice is for everyone to clear the area where they want to start a fire, have something to put it out in an emergency and to make sure it's extinguished before leaving the area. He said, "People just have to be aware of what's around them." Eaker and Curry noted that even a spark or hot engine part from a car, ATV or chainsaw could ignite a fire.

On average annually, humans are to blame for 26 percent of wildfires in Utah. About 30 percent of the average annual cost of fighting wildfires is attributed to those caused by humans, Curry noted.

Lightning is another story.

"That's our biggest fear," Curry said.

Already, he added, things are drying out a lot in some areas of Utah. Dry storms or fronts with lightning and high winds increase that worry. Curry referenced the portent of similar circumstances already unfolding in California.

Eaker said Zion this year has seen plenty of hot, dry, windy weather and has been lucky so far that it hasn't had any lightning- or human-ignited wildfires, noting it could be just a "matter of time."

For more information on fire restrictions, visit the Web site www.utahfireinfo.gov or call Zion National Park at 435-772-3256.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com