Lingering drought conditions in 1993 led public lands officials to predict runaway wildfires during the summer months last year.
The good news about their prediction is that it never came true - unseasonably cool and wet weather left Utahns wondering whether summer ever came. Rain fell, grass filled Utah's rangelands and some seasonal fire crews never heard the phone ring.The bad news is those same grasses are now standing dry following a spring season that has seen record high temperatures and little rainfall.
The Fourth of July holiday usually marks the opening of the summer wildfire season. But more than 31,000 acres had burned with the Fourth still two weeks away.
Fire restrictions may blanket the state within a few weeks.
"Last year at this time, eleven fires had burned 22 acres. So far we've had 51 fires that have burned over 31,000 acres," said Frank Wiggins, director of the Interagency Fire Center in Salt Lake City.
To fire management officials, "grass" translates to "light fuel," and timber translates to "heavy fuels."
"We lucked out last year because we had very few fires," said Jim Cook, fire management officer for the Wasatch-Cache and Uinta national forests. "But it's catching up with us because there are extra fuels that didn't burn up last year."
Leftover grasses ignite easily, and the fire spreads quickly. A light snowpack left grasses standing in many areas, making them easier to ignite than grasses that are mashed under heavy winter snows, he said.
Several of the larger fires so far have had human origins: a 4,200-acre fire discovered Friday 25 miles southeast of Moab; a 7,000-acre fire being fought at the same time five miles west of Dugway; and an 8,000-acre fire crews contained Tuesday evening just south of Dugway. Lightning storms play a bigger role in fire starts beginning in July.
"It's going to be a bad one this year, if it does get started," Cook said.
"We're working on fire restrictions now," Wiggins said. His staff measures moisture content in grasses and fallen logs then makes recommendations to individual public lands agencies about burn restrictions.
"We're working on one for the Wasatch Front. We want to get it implemented before July 4," Cook said.
"We're probably two weeks ahead of where we are normally as far as our fire season goes, so it will be even more critical that people be careful on the Fourth," said Lynn Williams, fire and aviation chief for the Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management.
Fireworks are always banned in national forests. Bureau of Land Management regulations refer to prohibitions against "incendiary devices" but are not as clear as the Forest Service bans, Williams said.
Cigarette smoking can be restricted to campgrounds or even to the inside of automobiles under extreme conditions.
Even legal campfires that burn out of control can come back to haunt the person who starts them. "If you do ignite a fire, you are responsible for it. That includes suppression costs and rehabilitation - watershed damage and that type of thing. Rehabilitation costs are extremely high," Williams said.
Most of the acreage consumed by wildfires is undeveloped, but foothills areas where wildlands meet urban areas pose a lingering threat that worries fire officials.
The 1991 fires in Oakland, Calif., that caused an estimated $7.3 billion in damage burned in residential areas that resemble conditions in Wasatch Front canyons and along the foothills.
"I think we learned something from the Oakland fires, but people have short memories," Cook said. "People like to have the oak brush leaning against their houses and their decks."
Homes built among the brush or in wooded areas are often built with wooden shingles and siding to blend in with the surroundings, which makes them even more flammable. Forest Service officials routinely circulate pamphlets in these areas urging homeowners to cut brush away from their houses and keep rain gutters and yards clear of dry leaves and grass.