Editor’s note • The following is an excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune’s new Open Lands newsletter, a twice-a-month newsletter about Utah’s land, water and air from the environment team. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on and news we’re following, sign up to have Open Lands delivered to your inbox.
Land and water use reporter Leia Larsen here, and here’s a preview of our latest Open Lands newsletter. I hope you all survived Utah’s weekend heatwave.
I went biking around Powder Mountain recently and had the sudden realization that usually, at least in the last several years, Utah is socked in with wildfire smoke this time of year. But right now it seems like everyone across the continental U.S. has choked on wildfire pollution this summer except us.
Look, I’m not complaining. The hazy, unhealthy skies have made me absolutely dread Utah summers when, as a kid growing up in Cache Valley, it used to be my favorite season.
East Coast dwellers saw this year how depressing and downright apocalyptic it feels to have a brown cloud of gross smoke blotting out the sun.
While the air quality New Yorkers complained about over Twitter last month has improved, the Environmental Protection Agency’s fire and smoke map still shows a blanket of light haze drifting from Canada and covering pretty much all of the East Coast and Midwest. Wildfires have lit up in the Pacific Northwest, California and Arizona. Most of Utah and Nevada look like little islands of clear air surrounded by a sea of fire and smoke. So what’s going on?
(Here’s how things looked Sunday morning.)
The answer makes sense – it’s because of Utah’s unexpected, record-breaking winter.
“Thanks to a relatively wet winter across the West, we have yet to see a lot of significant wildfire development, especially here in Utah,” Hayden Mahan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told me last week.
Meanwhile, eastern Canada, which typically has lots of winter storms and wet conditions in general, sits abnormally dry. That turned its forests into a tinderbox.
Utah did see a few days of smoke-filled skies unusually early this year, back in May (remember that?). It was because pretty much all of Canada had a bone-dry winter, so smoke drifted in from fires in Alberta. Then some late spring storms hit that region, snuffing out the flames.
“All the fires shifted toward eastern Canada,” Mahan said.
Even in the throes of summer, some of Utah’s mountains still have snow, so flame-prone conditions haven’t developed here. Mahan pointed out to me, however, that our insanely stormy winter and spring don’t mean the state will dodge wildfires and smoke this year.
“There are two sides to the coin there,” Mahan said. “The fact we did have a pretty wet winter obviously delayed fire season quite a bit. But we have quite a lot of fuels that were able to grow this spring due to that wet winter.”
Zones in southern Utah have already become “fire critical,” Mahan said. And the intense heat in recent days means fire conditions are coming for central and northern Utah as well.
“It’s probably a matter of weeks now until we’re in that vulnerable state,” he told me.
With oddly dry conditions to the north and east this year, along with extraordinarily wet conditions here in the West, and scarily hot conditions pretty much everywhere, I asked whether we’re getting a glimpse of what climate change has in store.
“It’s hard to link one specific year to climate change. Weather and climate are two different things,” Mahan explained. “But … these anomalies are expected to become more frequent and less anomalous due to climate change in the future.”
Speaking of our wet winter, want to see the latest on how the Great Salt Lake and Lake Powell are doing? Or get a taste of why St. George settlers once made wine with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ blessing? Read the full edition of this week’s Open Lands newsletter, or, better yet, subscribe and get future editions delivered to your inbox for free.