While 2020 will go down as a banner year for human-caused fires in Utah, the state’s largest fires by far were sparked by lightning in remote places and subsequently whipped up by big winds.
The second largest has been burning for a month in the Ashley National Forest and full containment is still weeks away. The East Fork Fire started Aug. 21 in the High Uintas Wilderness and has since burned 60,000 acres of bone dry forest, filled with standing beetle-killed conifers about 15 miles north of Duchesne.
“This is one of those fires, we saw the forecast saying drier, hotter for this time of year, where there’s a high probability this could go on for another month or longer,” Mike Erickson, a spokesman with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said at an online community briefing Sept. 15. “So please be patient.”
The Grandview, Upper Stillwater, Moon Lake, Center Creek and Swift Creek trailheads remained off limits, closing off a large part of the Uintas' south slope ahead of hunting season.
Currently 22% contained, East Fork is on pace for eclipsing the 78,000-acre Canal Fire in size, but it may wind up improving forest conditions, according to the Ashley’s Duchesne District Ranger Kristy Groves.
“The fire is able to crawl along those dead and down trees because there is an excessive amount of dead from the beetle kill,” Groves said. “It is actually doing some good things, cleaning out a lot of the fuels. There are a lot of green islands in [the burn area]. It will help refresh those aspen stands. This area is adapted to fire.”
More than 300 firefighters and four helicopters are working East Fork and the nearby Center Creek Fire. Normally a fire complex of this magnitude would see 500 to 1,000 firefighters, according to incident commander Steve Shaw, but the massive fires in California, Oregon and Washington are drawing resources that would otherwise be available.
Utah’s two big fires — Canal and East Fork — alone account for more than half the acreage that has burned this year in the Beehive State, whose fire season barely registered next to the catastrophes unfolding up and down the West Coast. Considering how hot, dry and windy it has been this summer, it is remarkable Utah’s fire season has not been worse.
Some 1,274 wildfires scorched 256,000 acres as of Wednesday, according to the Great Basin Coordination Center.
“Relatively, we haven’t burned that many acres,” State Forester Brian Cottam told Utah lawmakers during a Sept. 15 meeting. “We average 150,000 acres burned, so when you consider how many fires we’ve had, we aren’t doing too bad.”
Still, the state has spent $36 million fighting fires, far exceeding what is budgeted, he said.
Target shooters triggered two fires in Utah County over Labor Day weekend that continue burning. Two miles south of Santaquin, 200 firefighters are on the 4,300-acre William Fire, which is 45% contained, according to UtahFireInfo. The Ether Hollow Fire east of Springville is largely contained at 849 acres.
Lightning ignited the Canal Fire June 27 in Millard County. It was quickly contained, but strong winds the next day propelled the fire’s escape and it kept burning for another two weeks, taking 34 structures with it.
Minimal rain has fallen on Utah since June and record levels of dryness had become apparent by the time lightning sparked the East Fork Fire, according to fire management officer Joe Flores.
“The [usual] monsoons never came, so our fire danger continued to increase where we’d normally decrease,” he said at the Sept. 15 meeting with lawmakers. “The fire started at one of the worst periods of time we could have. The live vegetation was curing, down and dead fuels on the ground was all dry. We had a complete fuel structure, meaning the trees down to the duff was all very dry and was dry at all elevations, even up to 11,000 feet.”
The fire initially burned in steep terrain filled with standing dead trees, making it unsafe to deploy firefighters, so authorities focused on getting visitors out of the backcountry. Within a week, dry lightning storms started the Phinney Lake and Center Creek Trail fires nearby in the wilderness area.
The game changer was Utah’s apocalyptic windstorm of Sept. 7-8, which transformed the East Fork Fire into a hard-charging beast. In a 48-hour period the fire grew by 35,000 acres, merging it with the Phinney Lake Fire. The flames dashed seven miles to the east and almost overran the popular resort area at Moon Lake. Firefighters used back burns to successfully protect Moon Lake’s campground and cabins, according to Groves.
“When fires are like that, there isn’t a tanker out there, never enough retardant to stop those. It was just trying to get people out of the way of the fire at that point,” Erickson said. “They had all sorts of federal and state and county officials up each one of these canyons trying to make sure nobody got hurt. Thankfully, nobody did. We did, unfortunately, lose a few structures on private inholdings.”
Firefighters have focused on keeping the fire from spreading east and south into Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, where it has scorched 6,400 acres. Tribal lands remained closed.
Because firefighters have secured the southern edge of the fire, Ashley officials have reopened lands south of the Rock Creek Road, Groves said.
But it’s a different story toward the north into the High Uintas Wilderness, where the fire is expected to keep burning until it runs out of fuels along the barren ridgelines or the snows come.