The wildfire season has ramped up, if the giant plume of dark smoke rising over the Stansbury Mountains was not sign enough.
The July thunderstorms brought rain that fed the vegetation and protected them from lightning, for the most part, said Emil Magallanes, operations coordinator for the Eastern Great Basin Coordination Center. "But in the last two weeks or so, we've been getting the thunderstorms but the temperatures have been increasing, the relative humidity has dropped, and we have had winds in the afternoon that dries the fuels out," Magallenes said.
A lot of lightning has come through the state lately, sparking fires in the dried-out fuel, said Kathy Jo Pollock, with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. As of Sunday evening, five wildfires were still burning in Utah or near the state line.
In one case, lightning struck brush near the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation on Saturday night and grew to 3,000 acres by Sunday evening as it moved to the juniper trees and the hillsides, said Joanna Wilson, a spokeswoman for the regional Forest Service office. The rapidly growing blaze, dubbed the Patch Springs Fire, sent a dark column of smoke billowing over the Stansbury Mountains and to the north, turning many people's view along the Wasatch Front of the setting sun a dramatic crimson.
The spreading fire is threatening several commercial and residential structures, as well as out buildings, Wilson said, though she could not specify where the buildings are. However, the fire is just 2 miles from the town of Terra and is near the reservation.
"We do have several engines and a water tender [and two 20-person hand crews] on scene. They're doing what they can to get around the fire," Wilson said. As of Sunday evening, crews did not have any of the fire contained.
Any time thick smoke enters a valley it could have an impact on air quality, said Randy Graham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. However, Graham said it was outside his expertise to comment on whether the Patch Springs Fire would lower the prediction of healthy air in Tooele County on Monday to a moderate or unhealthy level.
Elsewhere, crews were battling lightning-caused fire across the state.
• In Cache County, at least 50 firefighters are battling two lightning-caused blazes burning on a mountainside.The Millville Fire has burned about 1,950 acres between Millville Canyon and Blacksmith Fork Canyon, said Charity Parks with the U.S. Forest Service. It was first reported at 3:39 a.m. Sunday. No structures are threatened.
The lightning strikes initially started at least four separate fires, but two fires burned into each other, said Craig Humphreys, fire marshal for Logan City.
Humphreys said 10 fire engines from throughout the county, two from the U.S. Forest Service, a 20-person hand crew, two air attack planes and a helicopter are battling the blazes, which are highly visible from the valley. The fires are burning mostly on state land. As ordered by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah National Guard on Sunday afternoon sent three Blackhawk helicopters to help.
• Four fire crews are also working on a wildfire in Box Elder County near the Idaho line. The Northern Utah Interagency Fire Center said Sunday that 240 firefighters are working to protect structures in the area. The State Fire, which has burned about 11,000 acres since it started Thursday, is 38 percent contained, said spokeswoman Jennifer Hansen. So far, there are no reports of damaged structures or injuries. The fire is primarily burning on private land.
The fire, burning west of Portage, started on Thursday. Hansen said investigators have determined that lightning was the cause.
The fire is moving in a northeast direction through grass, brush and juniper stands in steep, rocky terrain. It briefly threatened a few residences on Friday, but fire crews building containment lines were able to divert the blaze away from structures.
On Saturday, the fire was about 1 mile from residents living east of Portage. State Line Road and Portage Canyon Road have been closed.
• To the east and slightly south, the Mt. Elmer Fire had burned 6 acres by Saturday afternoon. A spokeswoman said the fire was located in the Mt. Naomi Wilderness and was smoldering. No crews were fighting the fire, as no one was available to pull from other blazes.
• On the Wyoming line, the Lake Lorena Fire is burning about 1 mile southeast of the East Fork of the Bear Boy Scout camp and Â¾ of a mile from the East Fork of the Bear Trailhead on the Evanston Ranger District. That fire, ignited by lightning on Friday, is smoldering in a small group of trees. It is being monitored, but no crews are on the scene.
• Crews have taken protective steps to keep the 100-acre Third Water Fire in Spanish Fork Canyon locked in between Strawberry Ridge and Ray's Valley Road and protect range improvements and water quality. The following roads and trails in the area remain closed to public use: Forest Service Road 70258; the Great Western Trail; Fourth Water Trail; and Third Water Trail. The fire has burned 100 acres since being started by lightning on Tuesday.