At least seven major wildfires were burning across Utah Monday, keeping firefighters and pilots busy in the face of hot, windy weather that has primed drought-plagued land covered with timber and sagebrush for ignition.
Structures had burned and 200 to 300 people had been evacuated east of Strawberry Reservoir in the rapidly-spreading path of the Dollar Ridge Fire, fire officials said. The fire ignited Sunday afternoon on private land southeast of the popular reservoir.
“Fire managers sought opportunities to suppress the fire from its outset, but extreme fire behavior driven by high winds in steep terrain and heavy fuels have made it impossible to put crews on the line,” wrote Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, FFSL. “Due to high winds, helicopters have been unable to fly and retardant planes were unusable.“
Heading into a holiday week that is expected to draw thousands onto Utah’s public lands, the wildfire threat, along with algal blooms on Utah Lake, has narrowed the options for places to enjoy outdoor recreation. Closures surround the areas burning in Utah’s two most threatening fires: The West Valley Fire north of St. George and the Dollar Ridge Fire, at more than 7,000 and 30,000 acres, respectively, with little containment as of Monday.
Both appear to have been started by careless humans, but their causes remain under investigation. Abandoned campfires have been a major culprit in this year’s busy fire season, which got a jump start in May after the dry winter left a snowpack that disappeared early, Curry said.
“Campfires are really dangerous,” Curry said in a phone interview Monday while on the scene of Dollar Ridge. “We have had an extraordinary number of campfires that are just abandoned, that were not adequately put out. It’s people who don’t how to put out a campfire or aren’t making the effort to. Give us a break, put that fire out. Better yet, if you don’t need a campfire, don’t light one.”
Firefighting agencies across the Great Basin are on high alert in response to the extreme conditions, readying teams for rapid deployment.
“The Forest Service is working with its interagency partners to be prepared for potential increases in fire activity by strategically staging smokejumpers, engines, crews and equipment to reduce response times,” said agency spokesman Wade Muehlhof. “This week there will be evening patrols to catch any new starts as quickly as possible.”
On Sunday, Dollar Ridge Fire quickly spread onto Ashley National Forest and moved east. Several seasonal homes were in peril Monday. It was burning west of Timber Canyon and south of the Strawberry River, but long-range spotting forced evacuations at Camelot Resort and cabins downriver along Strawberry Gorge.
The Duchesne County Commission has issued an immediate evacuation order for the area south of Currant Creek from the Wasatch County line east to the Lower Red Creek Road, and south to the Strawberry Pinnacles Junction and the Avintaquin Canyon Road to the junction of Horse Ridge Road. The county intends to strictly enforce the order and anyone entering this area could be fined up to $1,000.
Additionally, the sheriff has put Fruitland and Pinion Ridge residents, who live just north of the closure areas, on notice that they may have to clear out.
Aircraft were dropping fire retardant and water, but hot and gusty “red flag” conditions were making it difficult to contain the fire.
“It’s really steep terrain and heavy fuel timber, mainly conifers and little aspen here and there. We know that the fire growth will be really unpredictable and it will give us some problems,” Curry said. “Helicopters and ground crews are working in concert to try to establish containment and protect homes. It’s spreading in all directions but primarily to the east.”
Elsewhere, destinations such as Upper Browse Creek are closed even though there are no active fires nearby. The Dixie National Forest preemptively closed the Oak Grove Campground and nearby roads for the duration of fire season. This area on the southeast flank of the Pine Valley Mountain, above Leeds, has access constraints that would imperil visitors if these lands were to catch fire.
“The Oak Grove Campground and Browse Guard Station are located at the top of the drainages with only one road in and out of these areas. The closure is a proactive approach to safeguard the public during these extremely dry conditions,” said Skeet Houston, the forest’s Pine Valley District fire management officer.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pine Valley Mountains, the West Valley Fire is burning out of control after an abandoned campfire got loose June 27.
Another place to not go this week is Huntington Canyon, thanks to the Trail Mountain Fire, which is nearing full containment after burning about 18,000 acres. Closed are Horse Canyon Trailhead and Indian Creek, Little Bear, Lower Little Bear, and Riverside campground, although State Route 31 remained open. That fire started June 6 when a storm pushed a prescribed burn out of its containment zone.
Curry expected personnel demobilized from this and other older fires to be redeployed to Dollar Ridge.
On Monday, the Ashley National Forest imposed fire restrictions in the face of “substantial hazardous fire potential.” Forest Service restrictions prohibit campfires and charcoal grilling outside constructed fire pits in designated areas; smoking; operating motorized equipment that isn’t equipped with spark arresters; and cutting metal in vegetated areas.
“There are a lot of ways to start fire,” Curry said. “We are asking people to really stop and think when they are outdoors, recreating, working or even traveling. We know that people didn’t intend to start fires, but through lack of caution and lack of care, we’ve had all these fires that started last week. It’s costly to taxpayers and dangerous to our firefighters.”
Fire restrictions are now in place over much of the state. Fireworks are not allowed on public land and Park City has banned the private use of fireworks in town. Just because a campfire may be legal, which is currently the case in the the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, officials urge visitors to use good judgment and forgo a campfire if it is windy, especially when the weather is also hot and dry.