SOUTH JORDAN — It snowed Tuesday in the higher elevations of the mountains of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, but that didn't stop the forest supervisor from musing out loud about what kind of wildfire season may happen this summer.
Whatever the heat of summer brings, Dave Whittekiend has equipment and firefighters ready to go, and he's already mapping a plan of prescribed burns, mechanical fuels treatments and other stopgaps in a plan of attack.
He knows it may seem early. He knows the snow is months away from going away and there are two magic words that sum up what to expect this year:
In an informal chat Tuesday with reporters at Forest Service offices in South Jordan, Whittekiend identified about $10 million in fuels projects aimed at the Upper Provo River drainage encompassing the Mirror Lake recreation area and critical municipal water supplies.
Three wildland fires have burned through the area that will serve as natural breaks, and the Forest Service has partially accomplished a section of a planned massive prescribed burn. In addition, crews began some mechanical treatments of overgrown forest stands, but have much left to do.
"It is one of the most critical drainages in the state of Utah," he said.
The state of Utah and the Forest Service are teaming up on a five-year goal to treat 1 million acres in an effort Whittekiend says is independent of any mandate.
"The million-acre challenge is a self-created thing, the forest and state of Utah are trying to do more," he said. "I don't know if we will get a million acres treated in five years, but our hope is to stretch this and fix the ifs."
On the conference table in front of him, Whittekiend pointed to a map with bright yellow patches denoting the areas of mechanical treatments, a striped area of the prescribed burn and the three areas of the previous wildland fires.
Winding through all of it is the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, the 42-mile stretch of state Route 150 that is one of the highest roads in Utah, which is lucky to be open by Memorial Day.
Whittekiend is hoping to get some funding through a collaborative partnership with the state's Watershed Restoration Initiative for fuels projects. An application for $1.5 million in funding was submitted, and word on funding approval could come anytime.
"We are trying to identify the areas that are the highest priorities," he said.
Across the state, there are 1.3 million acres of U.S. forest lands approved through the federal environmental review process for vegetation management projects. The cost is just over $300 million however, so those projects aren't likely to happen soon, Whittekiend admitted.7 comments on this story
Funding remains the federal agency's biggest challenge, and too much of the budget is eaten up in reactive firefighting costs rather than proactive fuels treatments.
The hope, however, is to get some success stories in the Upper Provo River drainage so if a wildfire does happen, it doesn't impact the entire system.
Whittekiend is also working on a joint project with the Ashley National Forest to restore hundreds of thousands of acres of aspens that will not only build wildfire resiliency but also help wildlife.