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Another wild fire summer likely

Same scenario likely as last year, expert says

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Goats are used in Woodland Hills in August 2002 to eat brush for fire prevention. But big fires are still likely.

Goats are used in Woodland Hills in August 2002 to eat brush for fire prevention. But big fires are still likely.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Utah wildfire agencies are gearing up for another hectic fire season as the state enters its sixth straight summer of drought.

Last year, about 153,000 acres burned in Utah, including 32,000 acres of prescribed burns — blazes the agencies ignited to prevent uncontrolled fires from occurring later in the summer.

"We're pretty much expecting the same scenario as last year," said Tod Hall, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

Last year's numbers were not as high as in years past. In 2000, for example, 228,000 acres were consumed when the drought was in its second year.

"We're expecting weather like we are having now — low humidity and high winds — until we can get out of the drought. If it will happen this year, that's anyone's guess right now," Hall said.

A tropical storm system could rid Utah of the drought, but that has less than a 1 percent chance of happening, according to Hall. The more likely route will be to wait till next year.

Hall said the winter snow replenished the ground water a small amount, but the warm temperatures of March caused the snow to melt quickly, again leaving Utah dry.

Theresa Rigby, fire information officer for the Bureau of Land Management, said one wet winter is not enough to pull the state out of drought.

"Northern Utah is really affected because without huge precipitation recovery, things will get bad and so it won't take much to spark off a fire," Rigby said.

In addition, the recent rainstorms have added to the abundance of flammable grass because it quickly dries up and can catch fire, according to Rigby. She expects most of the grass will be highly flammable by late June.

Kathy Jo Pollock, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman with the Utah Interagency Fire Center, said the drying climate creates conditions in which fires can be ignited simply by an exhaust pipe.

"Anything that can sustain heat can ignite grass or fire brush," Pollock said. "Cutting across a field, or the more obvious campfires and cigarettes, are also causes."

She added, however, the wildfire agencies try to prevent some fires from occurring with the Wasatch fuels assessment, which "prioritizes potential fire zones around the state by the type of grass, how old the area is and how close it is to urban areas."

The zones are then treated with chemicals, undergo prescribed burns or goats are brought in to graze the area.

"We have this window of opportunity to try to prevent some of the fires that are most likely to occur," Pollock said. "We get to control the amount of smoke we let down on people and essentially maybe save lives."

The national fire plan has allowed the wildfire agencies to increase their ability to catch fires before they blaze out of control by about 90 percent, Pollock said.

"It's given us a considerable amount of money so we could bring on more resources," she said. "We're more able to catch fires and keep them small instead of having to call in the incident management control. The additional resources have been a great asset."

E-mail: sbaghbani@desnews.com