DUCHESNE — As firefighters in Colorado begin to gain the upper hand on a wildfire west of Denver that killed two people, fire officials in Utah are warning that conditions in the state are ripe for a similar catastrophe.
"This is the 22nd fire in the (Uinta) Basin in the last few weeks," Stephen Rutter said Thursday as he walked through part of a 57-acre burn scar at the base of the Starvation Reservoir Dam, west of Duchesne.
The fire began Tuesday when flames from an agricultural burn were blown into nearby strands of cottonwood trees and sagebrush and then fanned by high winds, according to Rutter, who is the northeast area fire management officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
"At the onset of initial attack, we had 12-foot flame lengths," he said. "That's a very dangerous fire. Keep in mind, it may be March on the calendar, but it's burning like it's August."
Kirby Arrive, Bureau of Indian Affairs fire management officer for Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation headquartered in Fort Duchesne, agrees with Rutter's assessment.
Last year was wetter than usual, which allowed more grasses and shrubs to grow, Arrive said. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way, and without the same amount of water, the new growth is primed for ignition.
"That's what we're seeing this spring," Arrive said. "People burning this spring, thinking it's a normal spring, but they forget that we haven't had the moisture this spring."
It's atypical for flames from an agricultural burn to move across "short stubble" in a farm field, he said, but it's happened more than once this year. And in the fire near Starvation Reservoir, entire cottonwood trees and sagebrush were entirely consumed, something that doesn't usually happen until late summer.
"If we don't receive the moisture that we typically receive, then come July, we're probably going to be looking at … a more active fire season," Arrive said. "I'm going to have to guess that we're going to be busy."
But the Uintah Basin isn't the only part of the state that's in trouble.
"Statewide, I believe we're at 61 percent of average for snowpack," Rutter said. "I know in a lot of places we didn't receive the moisture, or it came as rain when the ground was frozen, ran off, and we didn't really get a benefit from it, and we're starting to see the effect of that."
Statewide fire restrictions are not in place at this time. However, the threat of wildfire is so great in Duchesne County that officials announced Thursday that they'll begin seeking reimbursement for firefighting costs from people whose fires get out of control. Those individuals may even face criminal charges.
"Our intention is to get people to pay attention to their fires, and not let them get away from them," Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Mitchell said.
"We're going to investigate and if it looks like a citation is warranted, we will be issuing citations," the sheriff said. "Which means we'll be issuing a lot more, from the way things look."
The fire west of Duchesne remains under investigation. Fire crews were released Thursday so they could rest and rehab for what their bosses expect to be a busy weekend.
Rutter and Arrive both said the early-season fires their agencies are responding to are largely preventable. They encouraged people to contact their local dispatch center to get clearance before burning, and then to make sure that they have access to a water source and hand tools to keep their fires under control.
"This is that time of year that the folks in the rural areas, when they burn their ditches and so on, and it's part of the way of life," Rutter said, "It's just that we ask that they exercise care and a little bit of thought before striking that match."