This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
By August, Steve Olson is ready to say goodbye to his family at a moment’s notice.
“We know that every year it’s going to happen,” said Olson, a captain with the Murray City Fire Department. Olson keeps a bag packed and waits for the inevitable call to a fall or winter wildfire in California.
“Once that call comes, you’re gone,” he said, “It’s going to be a two-week stretch away, and you miss a lot.”
For Olson, a lot includes the first day of school and his wife’s birthday multiple years in a row.
He is one of thousands of firefighters who each year help fight major “off season” wildfires in California and elsewhere. In recent years those fires have burned more territory, ended more lives, destroyed more property and required more boots on the ground than ever before.
It may have been easy to dismiss off-season fires as a California problem until Dec. 30, 2021, when the Marshall Fire ripped through Boulder County, Colorado, destroying more than 1,000 homes and structures in less than two days.
Could winter fires happen in Utah?
Rod Linn studies atmospheric conditions and how they affect fire at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico. He models how fires will act. Yet the Boulder fire surprised him as much as anyone.
“If you had asked me a few weeks earlier if that Colorado community was especially vulnerable to a fire,” Linn said, “I would have looked around and said, ‘no, not particularly.’”
Linn emphasizes the Colorado fire was the result of a variety of factors, namely a lack of snow on the ground, extremely dry conditions and the freak 115 mph winds that kicked up that day.
“We can back up and say what if we had the same wind event somewhere in Utah before snow fell?” Linn said. “When we have a dry year, a lot of places could wind up with the right conditions to be vulnerable.”
Indeed, this 2021-22 winter season, wildfires have occurred throughout the west, even in cold northern Montana.
Experts interviewed agreed that climate change makes off-season wildfires a near certainty for Utah. They are a question of when, not if.
What does it take to fight a winter wildfire?
When Olson thinks back on the many wildfires he’s fought, it’s not the sight or smell that comes to mind first, but the sound.
“Pine sap is basically turpentine,” Olson said. “A dry pine filled with concentrated turpentine is a bomb.”
In a wildfire, those bombs can go off.
“If you can imagine one tree exploding in front of you,” Olson said, “imagine a whole forest. It sounds like a freight train is running over you.”
Arriving at a fire, “You show up and there’s an engine from New Mexico, a hotshot crew from Idaho,” Olson said, “and you could be on a division with crews from all over the country, even all over the world.”
Olson has fought fires alongside teams from New Zealand and Spain.
“Out in the woods, much of the time there isn’t immediate danger,” Olson said.
“But conditions can change so quickly,” said Olson, who fought the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire alongside Draper Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, who was killed in action. “There are so many things that can go wrong.”
Which Utah towns are at risk for winter fires?
Much of Utah’s population lives along an enormous wildland urban interface (WUI) - the area where human settlement and wildlands meet - thanks to the Wasatch Front’s long, narrow north-south axis. Communities from Logan to Santaquin share a significant border with wildland.
The Boulder fires took place in a similar environment to the valleys of the Wasatch Front. Grassland and brush fires in Utah’s valleys are generally less dangerous and easier to contain than forest fires, but with a strong wind they can also be fast moving and pose a serious risk to human settlement in very little time.
Communities that are pushing out into the sagebrush sea are perhaps in the greatest danger along the Wasatch Front, said Olson, citing the 2020 Knolls Fire in Saratoga Springs. The fire led to a community evacuation order. Olson said this is why every family should have a plan in case of fire and a 72-hour kit.
“One of the hardest challenges in these fires,” Olson said, “is convincing people they need to leave their homes. We need to think more like people in Florida who know what to do when a hurricane is coming.”
Dan Jimenez, a mechanical engineer and researcher for the U.S. Forest Service who grew up in Utah, said he was shocked a couple of years ago when he visited Saratoga Springs.
“There used to be nothing out there, and now you’ve got house after house and it’s all very exposed,” Jimenez said.
Utah communities in Utah’s grassy valleys are not the only ones at risk, though. Olson sees parallels between the isolated California communities leveled by forest fires and some of Utah’s mountain towns.
“I think of Park City, Heber, Midway, even Payson,” Olson said. “They all have a problem.”
Olson fought the Pole Creek fire in 2018 that burned nearly 100,000 acres and endangered communities in south Utah County: “I remember being out there and watching the flames jump over us from one stand of trees to another.”
Jimenez was one lead on a recent controlled burn in Fish Lake National Forest.
“Large mammals used to be the herbivores who cleared forest floors,” Jimenez said, “now fire is the ultimate herbivore.”
Letting fire consume this material in a careful, prescribed way could help prevent massive forest fires.
Can we prevent Utah winter wildfires?
Total prevention isn’t possible, experts agree, but there are things Utah and its residents can do to decrease the likelihood, the severity and the danger of off-season fires.
Linn suggests mapping two things: fuel and ignition sources.
“If you know wind patterns, where dry brush or other fuel may be found along the interface, then the critical thing is what might ignite a fire,” he said.
He points to the need to map power lines in particular, especially in forested areas, given the extensive damage done by PG&E power line-ignited fires in California’s woodlands.
Linn suggests mapping these vulnerabilities and planning communities accordingly.
“What if instead of placing golf courses in the center of town,” Linn said, “you put them at the edge as a buffer?”
Olson offered an example of how this proactive approach could work. For several years he doubled as the volunteer fire chief for Santaquin, Utah. He led a community effort to identify the town’s most vulnerable quadrant, and led volunteers to thin brush in the area. The result is even visible from satellite imagery.
“That took human effort and cooperation from public and private landowners, but we did it,” Olson said.
Experts note that clearing brush should not be done without careful study because clearing or interacting too much with the sagebrush sea may create new fire threats. Still, Olson says careful, purposeful mitigation efforts are something every Utah community can do.
“Every community in Utah has a Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan,” Olson said. “It’s a matter of making that an active plan and not something that no one reads.”
Olson also emphasized the importance of participating in debris clearing efforts in communities.
“If your community has spring clean up days or clear the brush events, get involved in those,” said Olson. “Everyone wants to help when a fire is burning. It’s a lot harder to get people out there in these clean up efforts that could actually prevent a fire.”