SALT LAKE CITY — Record-breaking warm weather and unseasonably dry conditions have combined to create a rare February phenomena of heightened fire danger in northern Utah.
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands documented at least five fires over the weekend, including one high in the mountains of Tooele County that scorched 140 acres.
"It is pretty shocking that it is this dry in February," said division spokesman Jason Curry. "In my time here I have never seen a fire this big in February in northern Utah. It is very concerning about what we may see once fire season does get here."
All the fires were human-caused and several remain under investigation.
The heat and sunlight are drying things out.
"We have had temperatures that have ranged up to 28 degrees above normal," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "We are averaging 20 degrees above normal for February as of today (Monday), which is phenomenal when you think about the amount of energy going into a snowpack that was already small."
With no significant valley storms logged in the Salt Lake City area since Jan. 12, soils and vegetation are extremely dry.
"The fuels are dry, we know that, " Curry said. "The grasses, they do not take long to respond to these temperatures and the heavier fuels like the brush and trees, it has been so long since they have had any moisture — everything out there is dry."
While there have been incidences of February brush fires before, Curry said the distinction this year is the frequency and scope of the blazes.
"When we get these winter thaws, it's not unusual to get a little fire of an acre or less," he said.
The Tooele County blaze, in particular, burned in rough terrain in a high mountain area and required a significant deployment of resources, he said. Given the dry conditions, the blaze easily eclipsed 100 acres in little time.
Conditions are not expected to change anytime soon, with high temperatures forecast to reach the low 60s by this weekend along the Wasatch Front.
"Our advice is for people to use more caution than they normally would in the winter months," Curry said. "This is not your normal February. It is much drier and more fire prone than any February I've seen. It is a pretty grim picture for fire season if things continue the way that they have."
The early onset of wildland fire activity is also underscoring the division's push to the Utah Legislature to continue putting money into a statewide catastrophic wildfire reduction effort.
The division is requesting $2.5 million to continue with pre-suppression activities that target the most vulnerable areas of the state and ramp up community preparedness.
Areas of emphasis include reductions in noxious or invasive vegetation, boosting firefighting training and educating homeowners on creating "defensible space" protection buffers.
Curry said the division is also watching HB196 by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, that would give a tax credit of up to $2,500 to qualifying homeowners who take certain wildfire mitigation measures to protect their homes. The credit would reimburse them for up 50 percent of the expenses incurred.
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