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The heat is on firefighters in dry Summit

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PINEBROOK FIRE STATION No. 35 — Frank Heumann is wearing, appropriately enough, a red shirt.

Frank is the assistant fire chief at this Park City district station that sits just across the fence from I-80. The station and the fire trucks in it are sparkling clean, like a fire station should be. The firefighters are tanned and fit, like firefighters should be.

Until a few months ago, there was even a station house Dalmatian . . . until the dog chewed up the captain's shoes.

The whole scene is one of orderliness and readiness.

And, these days, you can throw in tension.

The place is so quiet you could hear a match drop.

Assistant chief Heumann says he can't remember a "Stage 1 Fire Restriction" since a decade ago, which was the last time the grass was this high and this dry — and the last time firefighters went to sleep with one eye open and one hand on their gear.

The first sign that it was going to be a Stage 1 summer was early in the spring when hikers started their annual invasion of the Summit County mountains and reported little of the mud that usually greets them at the end of winter.

The hikers were thrilled.

Frank and his fellow firefighters thought, "Uh-oh."

A Stage 1 in Summit County means private citizens are not allowed to light fireworks. Not patriotically on the Fourth and 24th and not otherwise, either. There is no good excuse for lighting off anything.

One story that regularly makes the station house rounds is from last summer, when a parent across the freeway in Jeremy Ranch took the kids out to show them how to properly discharge fireworks — and ended up starting a fire on the hillside that required helicopters and dozens of firefighters to finally put it out.

The parent was sent a bill for the firefighting expenses totalling several thousand dollars. The parent didn't pay, however, and the county didn't prosecute. A decision that didn't exactly meet with rounds of applause in the station house.

If the same thing were to happen this summer, however, it might be a different story.

"When we come right out and say, 'no fireworks,' and publicize that all over the county," says Capt. Gary Kilgore, "prosecution will happen."

Tough conditions call for tough measures. Just last week, a Summit County sheriff stopped a car on the interstate loaded with $1,000 worth of illegal fireworks bought in Wyoming.

The fireworks were confiscated like they were kilos of cocaine.

Firefighters know they can be just as deadly.

Legal fireworks are also a problem. Months ago, before the driest summer in a decade arrived, business permits were given to people who wanted to sell sparklers and snappers and fountains in shopping center parking lots.

The booths are up and selling.

"You can buy them but you can't light them — not here," says Heumann.

At least not until November.

In the meantime, the summer watch continues. Here in Summit County, they're still crossing their fingers. There have been some minor fires — started by fireworks — but nothing like what's been going on in Salt Lake, Tooele and Davis counties.

When the big fire east of Tooele erupted last week, the smoke caught the jet stream and blew over Summit County, prompting dozens of calls to Fire Station No. 35.

"We had three units rolling before we knew it wasn't here," says Kilgore. He shrugs. "The only chance we've got," he says, "is if we get there fast."

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.