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As fires burn in Utah, the best-trained firefighters are at a premium

Published June 29, 2012 10:24 pm

But officials say state is getting the people and equipment needed to manage wildfires.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In a way, every big Utah fire is fought in Salt Lake City.

And the really big Utah fires consume even Boise.

Administrators in those two cities make decisions about where to send resources when fires get too big or too numerous. And the people in charge of fighting fires in the West are having to make tough choices as blazes rage this summer.

The conflicts were evident last week in Utah. The Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County had already caused evacuations when something, it's presumed to be lightning, ignited timber on Mount Seeley over the mountain in Emery County.

The commander of the Wood Hollow Fire deployed a three helicopters to snuff the Seeley Fire. But those helicopters were recalled later in the day.

"That's when our fire blew up and we were trying to protect the towns of Birdseye and Fairview," said Dorothy Harvey, a spokeswoman for the team managing the Wood Hollow Fire.

Birdseye and Fairview were saved, but the Seeley Fire by the weekend had grown to more than 20,000 acres.

Colorado is taking most of the available fire crews, leaving Utah short-handed as blazes across the state continue to burn, deputy interagency fire commander Cheto Olais said Friday.

Seeley's fire commanders have requested about 200 additional firefighters but probably will get just up to 20 because of the scarcity of resources, Olais said.

"A lot of assets are going to Colorado," Olais said in a briefing to Carbon County emergency officials. "We're trying to justify getting more assets."

When a fire gets too big for Utah's local fire departments, a call is made to the Eastern Great Basin Coordination Center in Salt Lake City. The center works with federal and state agencies to send firefighters and aircraft to blazes in Utah, southern Idaho, the Arizona Strip, and a section of west-central Wyoming.

Nelda St. Clair, a coordinator for Eastern Great Basin, said Thursday that the center has no more of the highly trained Type 1 teams that are relied upon to fight the big fires. The Center is trying to compensate by deploying other types of firefighters.

St. Clair, however, said there are enough aircraft in Utah and, on the whole, enough resources to fight the fires currently burning in the state.

"I feel like we're successful in getting what we need, yes," St. Clair said. "Are we getting everything we want? No. Are we getting resources to adequately manage the fires? Yes."

St. Clair said her office has called in help from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That agency observes what is burning across the country and, when the regional fire coordinators need help, the Interagency Fire Center will try to find firefighters, trucks or aircraft in other states to deploy.

Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for Interagency Fire Center in Boise, acknowledged the agency is running low on Type 1 crews in the Intermountain West, but said Interagency's governing body was monitoring the situation and may send Type 1 crews from other parts of the country.

"We act as quickly as possible," Smurthwaite said. "Sometimes resources are closer and that's where we first start. If there's a resource close to Utah, that's where we'll start first."

Utah's state forester, Dick Buehler, said Utah has enough firefighters and equipment to share now, especially as the Wood Hollow Fire comes under control. But Buehler worries about how Utah and federal agencies will keep up as the fireworks season arrives in the midst of a drought.

On Friday, Buehler pointed out Utah has been averaging a new wildfire every other day for more than a week.

ncarlise@sltrib.com Twitter: @natecarlisle

The Associated Press contributed to this story.