‘Take this seriously’: Why this summer has Utah fire officials concerned

'We’re expecting fire conditions to really pick up as we get into July, especially the latter half of July,' - Basil Newmerzhycky

By: Kyle Dunphey, Utah News Dispatch

It might seem counterintuitive, but back-to-back winters with above-average snowfall has officials worried that this summer could bring large and dangerous wildfires to Utah.

That’s because a healthy snowpack leads to more vegetation — now, with what has been an abnormally hot and dry spring, that vegetation is drying out, making it prime kindling for a wildfire.

Chris Delainey, Utah’s fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management, said the fire conditions heading into the summer are similar to years like 2020 or 2012, when the state was subjected to devastating blazes.

“We’ve got more grass and more fuel than we’ve seen in quite some time. We’re seeing temperatures that are setting records early in June. I’m imploring folks to take this seriously,” he said. “We’re seeing conditions that line up with seasons where we’ve lost homes, we’ve seen people killed … conditions are aligning that have fire managers and fire chiefs very concerned.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox called it the “perfect recipe for wildfire season.”

“You can look around here and you’ll see the fuel growth is much higher than it was two years ago,” Cox said, speaking from This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on a hot Monday afternoon. “You can feel it. We are having above-average temperatures, a lot of heat in June. It’s much hotter than it should be this time of year.”

Cox spoke during the annual Fire Sense news conference, where officials from the Bureau of Land Management, Utah Office of Tourism and Salt Lake City Fire Department urged Utahns to be smart when recreating on the state’s public lands this summer. Roughly half of all wildfires in the state are human caused — in 2020, 4 out of 5 wildfires were triggered by people, burning over 100,000 acres in Utah.

“We desperately need people to step up,” Cox said. “Let’s be smart about what we’re doing and let’s keep Utah safe this summer.”

For Utahns, that includes adhering to the state and Forest Service’s guidelines for campfires, ensuring heavy machinery is up to code, preventing chains and other metal objects from dragging behind trailers and vehicles, and following proper protocol when target shooting, like shooting into a backstop and not using banned ammunition.

Chris Milne, assistant chief for the Salt Lake City Fire Department, said homeowners should create buffer zones heading into the summer, which is essentially the space between a home and the vegetation that can burn. Embers from a wildfire can travel over one mile, and Milne said a buffer zone can prevent new fires from starting.

“It buys you time in order to protect your home from catching on fire and being able to evacuate, if you need to,” Milne said, adding that it allows firefighters to be more effective.

Basil Newmerzhycky, lead meteorologist with the Great Basin Coordination Center, an interagency group that includes the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and state agencies, said the fire season is already picking up. Though it’s now 100% contained, the Rockville Fire in Washington County burned about 73 acres over the weekend.

The size of the Rockville Fire could spell trouble for Utah — Newmerzhycky said fires this time of the year are usually around 10 acres in size, not 50 to 100 acres. As the state continues to dry out, conditions will worsen.

“We’re expecting fire conditions to really pick up as we get into July, especially the latter half of July,” he said.

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