Tracy Dunford looks around City Creek Canyon’s blushing hues of green and knows it won’t last. Wildfire season is coming.
"If you look around here, it’s very easy to see how a fire could get started," said Dunford, a Utah State Forestry fire management officer.
Joining other experts on Thursday to talk about the impending fire season with a small army of reporters, Dunford pointed out how a careless use of fireworks or a campfire could spark an inferno that climbs the slopes toward the homes perched on the Salt Lake City canyon’s rim.
Wildfires are an inevitability in Utah’s summer and early fall — and the western United States’ long drought is not doing firefighters’ any favors. Most of the state remains in moderate drought, with several severe pockets in southern and western Utah. But if there is anything playing in firefighters’ favor, experts predict that this wildfire season will be a "normal" one for the state.
Winter’s snowpack was underwhelming, but at least the past two months have seen some rain, according to meteorologists. Shelby Law, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management meteorologist, pointed out how the moisture in the sagebrush is much higher now than it was last year.
Parts of northeastern Utah and most of Grand County have even escaped the drought’s reach, as of a May 13 U.S. Drought Monitor report.
The expected El Nino season could help, too — "it [will not be] quite as hot for quite as long," Law said.
The periodic warm ocean water might translate to cooler temperatures and higher humidity for Utah, Law explained. El Nino could possibly bring more stormy weather as well, which is both a gift and a curse: more lightning means more sparks for fires, but the rainfall goes a long way to extinguish those potential wildfires and keeps fuel wet and green.
But then, there is the ongoing drought. While Utah is by no means in as bad a shape as California or Nevada, southern Utah has not seen the same amount of rain as much of the rest of the state. Certain pockets of Utah have reached severe drought levels, including large swaths of Washington, Duchesne, Box Elder, Tooele and San Juan counties, according to the recent monitor report.
Technically, wildfire season runs from June 1 to Oct. 31, but Utah’s has already started, as far as Dunford is concerned. Southern Utah has already seen a few blazes.
The potential danger to firefighters is in the forefront of their minds, particularly with the upcoming one-year anniversary of Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters on June 30.
"It’s definitely in the front of our minds," said Jessica Osborne, a six-year Forest Service firefighter.
Her comrade, Mike Stoutsenberger, said they understand the risk is part of the job, but it’s important not to lose focus on their safety — even though it gets easier to lose that focus toward the end of the season as fire after fire wears them down.
As Osborn pointed out, trees grow back — people don’t.
And while wildfires are inevitable, the BLM is looking into extending its prevention efforts, said Cheryl Probert, deputy forest supervisor on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. That includes reducing fuels that would feed the fires, she said.
Citizens can help too, as BLM fire mitigation specialist Heather O’Hanlon pointed out. She encourages everyone to not only report fires, but irresponsible behavior, as well.
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