July 22, 2008

Fire Season Quiet but Threat of Blazes Still Looms

By Judy Fahys and Jason Bergreen, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 22--The good news? Utah's drier-than-tinder landscape hasn't fueled any big fires this year.

The bad? Wildland fire danger remains "extreme" in southern Utah and "high" in northern parts of the state. One fire official called the quiet "eerie" in light of the fire-ready conditions on the range and in the forests.

"All of us have been sitting on pins and needles waiting for it to happen," agreed Richard J. Buehler, state forester and director of the Utah division of forestry, fire and state lands.

Caution is still in order as Utahns begin celebrating the Pioneer Day holiday with fireworks and campfires.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he cautioned. "We've got at least another two months of the fire season."

Last year by this time, two of the biggest fires in Utah history were winding down. Together the Milford Flat and Neola North fires had scorched more than 400,000 acres. When the fire season ended, the burned area totaled more than 600,000 acres, nearly the size of the state of Rhode Island.

In contrast, 8,800 acres have seen flames in Utah this year. All but 51 acres of that could be blamed on humans, who triggered 133 blazes. Lightning triggered 65.

California has been a devastating reminder of what a busy fire season looks like.

That state has beaten back more than 2,000 fires over the past month and continues to fight 33 -- some with the help of Utah wildland firefighters and equipment. Flames have burned nearly 1 million acres and destroyed 123 homes, one business and 138 outbuildings. Another 7,000 homes remain in harm's way, according to the California Department of Forest and Fires Protection.

Weather remains a key factor in Utah's favor so far.

A cool spring and cold snaps helped suppress vegetation growth this spring, said Buehler. Patches of snow can still be seen in the mountains and patches of green vegetation in the foothills.

And, although the state has only seen about two-thirds of normal precipitation for the year, humidity has been high enough, winds have been mild enough.

Monica Traphagan, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said moisture looks good through this week. And the monsoon season is coming, bringing higher humidity, and maybe some rain, with it.

"If it's been rained on," she said of the dry landscape, "then [fire] is not going to start."

Buehler credited public awareness for limiting the fires this summer. He also noted that state and county fire crews are trained, equipped and ready to go to work. About 300 fires -- including controlled blazes set by the agencies -- have already scorched the state this year. But none grew significantly because of aggressive fire suppression and small fuels beds.

Jason Curry added that the state also has been able to manage blazes like the Mill Hollow fire in Duchesne.

"This slow fire season has allowed us to use tools like wildland fire management and prescribed burn to accomplish a lot of good in terms of wildland health," said Curry, an information officer at Mill Hollow.

Even with all the good breaks Utah has enjoyed this year, Curry and Buehler can't help but be wary.

"We're holding our breath," said Curry. "A little spark could set things off."

Buehler's eyes are on the dry cheat grass in Utah's low country. "All I can tell you is the longer we go," he concluded, "the higher the likelihood is we're going to have major fires."

When that might happen, he says, he cannot predict.

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