Abnormally warm temperatures in early June could hasten the beginning of a wildfire season officials have warned could be one of the worst in Utah history. A combination of drought conditions in certain parts of the state and an abundance of fuel in the form of foliage raised during the wet spring months have heightened the risk, and Utahns should act accordingly.
The U.S. Department of Interior says 90 percent of wildfires are human-caused, and therefore, hypothetically preventable. With more people venturing into the back-country, and with more homes being built in previously wild areas, limiting the risks of charred acreage and damaged structures falls squarely into the category of individual responsibility.
Parts of the state have been under watch for above-average fire potential since May. In the highlands, a low winter snowpack left trees drier than usual. Poorly tended campfires are a common cause of wildfire, and one that can be limited by use of common sense. A discarded cigarette or careless use of ATV’s in tinder-dry grass areas are also examples of how tragedy can be ignited by inattention.
Fire agencies have undergone joint training efforts in preparation for a fire season that the U.S. Forest Service says can be particularly threatening this year. The number of annual wildfires can vary from year to year, with an annual average of about 1,300 fires, affecting 170,000 acres of land. Last year, a record 600,000 acres were burned, partly as a result of dry conditions that are similar to what we are seeing this year.
Of particular concern are areas within what are called Wildland Urban Interference Zones — places where new home construction has creeped into untamed land rife with native vegetation. In Salt Lake City, firefighters have begun community outreach programs and invested in new equipment to quickly and more effectively respond to hillside fires. The city has acquired two “pumpkin tanks,” which each hold 6,000 gallons of water that can be transported to fire scenes by trailer.
This year, the window for use of recreational fireworks has been sharply limited by a new law. Previously, fireworks were permitted for a total of 14 days around the July 4th and July 24th holidays. Now, they can be used only for two days before and one day after each holiday. Fire agencies lobbied for the law, pointing out that last July, 1,100 fires were reported in the state and 16 percent of them were caused by wayward fireworks. There were 50 fires caused by fireworks in Salt Lake County alone.
Fireworks fans need to pay heed to the new limitations and police agencies need to be ready to enforce the rules.9 comments on this story
The cost of fighting wildfires in Utah annually runs at about $50 million, not including the environmental costs of burning large swaths of land. In other parts of the country, money is set aside to deal with the aftermath of hurricanes or tornadoes. But unlike extreme weather events, wildfires can be prevented. While it’s good that public safety agencies have marshaled resources to prepare for a menacing summer, individuals are often in a position to take actions, or limit actions, that will go a long way toward dousing that threat.