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Utah off to scary start for fire season, due to dry spring, careless campers

by Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune |

The fire season has barely begun, and Utah has already experienced 237 wildfires – most of them small, of course – blackening nearly 3,000 acres in what officials fear could be a harbinger of bigger, badder burns to come.

The epidemic of fires is a testament to the hazardous conditions coming on the heels of a warm, dry spring, but, even more alarmingly, to the carelessness of people, according to State Forester Brian Cottam.

“The increasing trend of human-caused fires in this state is particularly troubling for all of us who deal with wildfire,” he said Tuesday during an online news conference. “Already this year in the state, all land statewide, we’ve had 237 wildfires. That’s compared to 67 last year at this time. That’s a four-time increase in the number of fires. And 95 percent of them are human-caused.”

His remarks came with the unveiling of what he described as the largest fire-prevention campaign in Utah history, called Spark Change, which urges people to exercise greater caution.

“The five-year average on state and private lands is almost 80 percent of all fires are human-caused. Eight out of 10 fires,” Cottam said. “What’s really frustrating about these numbers is that none of these fires needs to happen. All human-caused fires are preventable. And so all of the costs, all of the expenses that we pay through our tax dollars, federal government, state government and, yes, local government – they don’t need to happen.”

Last year’s fire season was relatively quiet coming after one of the wettest winters in years. Lots of vegetation sprouted last spring and remains on the ground after a year. It now is dried out and primed to burn, thanks to a spring that saw little rain or snow, explained Basil Newmerzhycky, a meteorologist with the interagency Great Basin Coordination Center.

"We are at record dry levels," Newmerzhycky said. "We are forecasting above-normal fire activity."

Meanwhile, agencies are embarking on an ambitious program of vegetation treatments to reduce fuel loads, although prescribed burning has not been used because of the coronavirus epidemic, said David Whittekiend, supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

“We have been continuing to do mechanical fuels treatments, both with large machinery and hand thinning and have had crews out in the field,” Whittekiend said. “We have not done prescribed burning this spring, and we’ve probably missed that window. We will be reevaluating in the fall if we do get conditions that allow us to do prescribed burning, but we will continue to do mechanical work, and we’ll be aggressive about that.”

Agencies could consider closing public land or imposing fire restrictions this summer if the conditions warrant, officials said, but not limits are currently being considered.

Sloppy camp practices have been implicated in many of this year’s blazes, said Jason Curry, a fire officer with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“Campfires in the early season is a big leader, as well as debris burning – folks that may be well-intentioned on their own land, trying to either burn off excess or clean up somehow,” Curry said. “But we’ve had a variety of different causes. You name it. So far this year, with those 237 fires, we’ve covered almost everything.”

Forest Service staffers discovered plenty of abandoned campfires still smoldering during the Memorial Day weekend in the national forest.

“The conditions were such that they didn’t spread, and we were able to catch those,” Whittekiend said. “This coming weekend, we’re looking at temperatures into the 90s. If we get strong winds, those abandoned campfires can spread quickly and every single one takes resources away from working on projects we could be working on, and it puts those firefighters at risk.”