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Early Utah wildfires point toward a season ‘for the record books’

Some 57,000 acres had already burned before the official start of summer following a dry winter and major heat wave.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A charred National Forest sign is left in the remnants of the Pack Creek Fire south east of Moab, June 14, 2021.

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At a time when the summer wildfire season has barely started, Utah has already experienced four major wildfires this year. So far, the dire predictions that the state is in for its worst fire season on record are coming true.

While crews have largely corralled Washington County’s Flatt Fire and other big blazes in recent days, there were dozens of new starts that kept fire officials busy. A combination of factors is driving the extreme fire risk, experts say, including long-term drought, an early-season heat wave, a legacy of past fire suppression that has left forests cluttered with fuels, and human carelessness.

“This is shaping up to be yet another epic and record-breaking fire season. We’re in a mega drought and at least half of that major multi-decadal drought has been attributed to warming and human-caused climate change,” said forest ecologist William Anderegg, a University of Utah biology professor. “Climate change is tilting the board and setting up these really epic conditions. It’s a series of weather events that give you really bad periods where you have these red flag warnings and very, very high fire risk.”

Bringing some relief Thursday was the first rain since May 23 in northern Utah, along with cooler temperatures and increased humidity that have aided firefighting efforts, according to forecaster Alex DeSmet of the National Weather Service. But temperatures are expected to rebound toward triple-digit territory.

“The heat will be will be returning late this weekend and into early next week, with temperatures rising once again back above normal,” DeSmet said. “Each day starting Saturday will add a couple degrees to our high temperatures through the end of next week and a return to a low relative humidity values across western and northern Utah.”

In the face of extreme fire-prone conditions, “stage 2” fire restrictions are expected on public lands in many if not all parts of the state. A leading trigger for wildfire, fireworks have already been banned on federal and state-owned lands, although a statewide ban does not appear likely this year.

Last winter delivered some of the lowest snowpacks Utah has seen in years. Consequently, the mountains shed their snow cover early and the soils are the driest on record, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which monitors snowpacks across the West.

“There are these feedbacks that happen when you have dry soils,” Anderegg said. “You tend to get hotter days and then vegetation dries out even more and makes the fuel even more at risk of going up with a single spark.”

At least eight active wildfires exceeding 100 acres are currently burning around Utah, the largest being the lighting-triggered Flatt Fire, spanning 15,000 acres of public land north and west of Enterprise. As of Wednesday, 435 fires had burned on 57,245 acres, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL).

“The national preparedness level has increased to a level four, that means that much of the country is experiencing wildland fire activity and areas are starting to compete for wildfire resources,” said FFSL spokeswoman Kayli Yardley said. “More than half the nation’s wildland firefighting resources are committed to a wildland fire. It is even more important for everybody to step up and play an active role in fire prevention.”

Just a few fires accounted for much of Utah’s fire activity. In addition to the Flatt Fire, the naturally caused Bennion and Bear fires near Price Canyon combined for more than 20,000 acres and the Pack Creek Fire, ignited by an abandoned illegal campfire on the La Sal Loop road, burned nearly 9,000 acres and several structures in Grand County.

Most troubling, however, is human activity sparked 80%, or 350, of Utah’s 2021 fires, accounting for 23,000 acres, according to Chris Delaney, the Bureau of Land Management’s statewide fire management officer.

“Our human-caused fires are through the roof. We like to think that every one of those is preventable,” Delaney said. “We want people to come out and use their public lands, we want them to recreate on them. We just want them to do that responsibly and be educated public land users where they know what they can do to help prevent wild land fires.”

While Utah’s fire season doesn’t officially start until June 1, it now effectively spans the entire year.

“We’ve had fires every single month to date,” Delaney said. “If it continues on the same path as it has been since early January, it’s going to be one for the record books.”

Last year’s East Fork Fire, Utah’s biggest of 2020, wasn’t declared out until early January. The first wildfire of 2021 started Jan. 7 in Tooele County, according to Delaney. The Mill Junction Fire scorched only half an acre and its exact cause has yet to be determined, but officials don’t believe it was a natural.

Officials have continued to upgrade restrictions all over the state to reduce opportunities for human-caused fires. The Manti-La Sal National Forest just announced stage 2 restrictions and the BLM is expected to follow.

Under stage 2 restrictions, fires of any kind are not allowed, even in developed campgrounds with metal fire rings. Propane-fire stove are okay. Also prohibited are target shooting, smoking, except in an enclosed vehicle, and use of equipment without a working and properly maintained spark arrestor.

“Our main fire cause is people target shooting out on public lands and shooting into dry brush and [bullets] ricocheting off rocks or blowing up exploding targets,” Delaney said.

Another problem stems from vehicles that are not properly maintained.

“They’ll pull their UTV and camp trailer out to the desert and they’ll be dragging their tow chains or they won’t inflate their tires properly and they’ll have a blow out and that causes a fire,” Delaney said.

He suspects the surge in human caused fires comes from both an increase of recreational use and the dry condition on the ground. A spark is just more likely to set off a fire.

“If we weren’t in extreme drought, if our fuels weren’t as dry as they’ve ever been, maybe some of those abandoned campfires would naturally go out on their own,” Delaney said. “The conditions are much, much more susceptible for a fire to start.”

U. geography professor Phil Dennison cautioned that the vegetation is just going to get drier and fire activity will soon migrate into higher elevations.

“Right now at lower elevation, we’ve seen a lot of fires. The higher elevation vegetation hasn’t really dried out yet. That’s where we need to be worried and have continued vigilance going into summer because there’s no sign of fire season getting better and we’re just at the beginning of it,” Dennison said. “We’re going to see more fire continuing at lower elevations and then to a much worse fire season at higher elevation than we usually have.”

In response to the epidemic of human caused fires, state and federal agencies have launched Fire Sense, a public awareness campaign highlighting the steps people can take to reduce the chances they could unintentionally start a fire.

“It’s kind of kind of a play on ‘common sense,’” Delaney said. “We want people to use their fire sense when they go out and use public lands, regardless of whether it’s BLM, Forest Service or state, to help us prevent and not cause some of these catastrophic fires.”

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