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Wind, summer heat kick up potentially devastating wildfire season in Utah

SHARE Wind, summer heat kick up potentially devastating wildfire season in Utah
“Here we are again, about the same time as last year, going into what we think might be another interesting fire season. Our conditions are a little bit better than last year, but not enough to really make a lot of difference. – State Forester Dick Buhler

SALT LAKE CITY — Fire officials in Utah are already scrambling after a dry storm sparked a handful of blazes this week.

The conditions are serving as a harsh reminder of Utah's nascent fire season, one hoped not to be a repeat of what was experienced across the state in 2012.

"Given the dry, hot and windy conditions statewide, we must be vigilant in practicing fire safety and good common sense," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday. He urged caution for anyone camping, target shooting and otherwise recreating outdoors throughout the summer.

"Summer is a fun time in Utah. We have beautiful vistas and venues, great places to go out and camp and hike," he said. "We just need to be smart in what we do."

Fifty percent of the more than 1,400 wildfires that burned nearly half a million acres in Utah last year were human-caused. The other half were the result of Mother Nature's lightning storms. But Herbert said crews fortunately stayed on top of them all, minimizing the loss of property and life.

He's hoping for the same this year but would like residents to step it up, as much of the state is experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions already, a week before summer's official start.

With plentiful dry grasses serving as the perfect fuel for fires, the added admonishment could make a difference, said State Forester Dick Buehler.

"Here we are again, about the same time as last year, going into what we think might be another interesting fire season," he said. "Our conditions are a little bit better than last year, but not enough to really make a lot of difference."

Lasting cooler temperatures this year, he said, perhaps served to avert an earlier start to the now obvious fire season, as six different fires popped up across the state Thursday.

High winds whipped down live power lines late in the day, intensifying concern for residents and businesses placed on alert after flames broke out in Provo and near Saratoga Springs.

Crews gained quick control of the blazes, which were kept away from homes but singed Wayne Pearce's yard.

"We had a beautiful yard. These were all shrubs but they're all history now," he said Friday.

It was a close call for the small development Thursday and officials all but forced Sherry Seamons to evacuate the area in anticipation of the flames. She said smoke blanketed her property, clouding all her belongings.

"That was one of the hardest things, to sit there, not knowing if everything you've worked for, that you have, is going to be gone," she said. "I was walking into my front door and I knew my house made it, so I was really grateful and I thank the Lord."

It's another story for thousands of residents of Colorado Springs, where the worst fires in the Centennial State's history continue to burn out of control and threaten thousands of homes, having already turned hundreds of residences to ashes. Two people have been found dead in the fire's path.

"It's just devastating to Colorado Springs," Herbert said. "The winds come up and they just can't contain the fires."

Herbert has authorized deployment of Utah National Guard troops and helicopters to help fight the three raging fires in the neighboring state, but the crew remains on standby until the Colorado governor requests further help. It is anticipated that troops would assist for a period of 72 hours.

"Sending our neighbors some help in this crisis is the right thing to do," Herbert said. Supplemental aircraft and crews will also be in Utah on standby, "ready to cover any emergency needs in Utah."

He said other states would also be called to help if wildfire breaks out within the state, but "fortunately, our people are on top of things."

"We've done a really good job in difficult conditions to contain these fires," Herbert said. "We fight fires as well as anybody."

Lynn Barclay, spokeswoman for the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit in Craig, Colo., said the weekend forecast is for hot, dry conditions. She also asked the public to be careful with fire.

"If it's windy, don't even strike the match," Barclay said.

The unit there is tracking 13 new fires, sparked by more than 400 reported lightning strikes in the area Thursday, including one burning on the Colorado side of Utah's Dinosaur National Monument.

Buehler said local crews are helping to battle a more than 60-acre fire burning near Desolation Canyon and three fires on Elk Ridge, west of Blanding, have smoke jumpers on them to effort a quick containment.

Herbert said the state has adequate resources to keep on top of things, but he'd rather not spend Utah's more than $300 million in rainy-day funds on fighting fires that are human-caused.

"We need to be vigilant, be proactive and use common sense in preventing fires from starting in the first place," he said. In addition to care while recreating on Utah's public lands, Herbert said structures need to be free of debris, hot vehicles kept away from dry grass, and fireworks, which are now regulated by individual city governments, should be used in safe zones and in accordance with local restrictions.

Park City is the first city in the state to enact restrictions on fireworks, banning class C fireworks at a City Council meeting Thursday. Anything from firecrackers to aerial blasts are banned through Halloween this year in the city. Other communities are expected to follow suit as summer gets underway.

Citing a "great response from citizens," State Fire Marshal Coy Porter said fireworks-related fires were kept to a minimum last year. "We're counting on everyone to be responsible again this year."

In addition to fireworks, Herbert also cautioned against using exploding targets while target shooting, which is believed to have sparked the 5,500-acre Dump Fire in Saratoga Springs last June. That fire prompted widespread evacuations and scrutinized the practice of shooting on dry lands.

He also said campers need to keep an eye on campfires, burning them in designated pits where available, and making sure ashes are fully doused before leaving them unattended.

"It's really up to us," Herbert said. "Let's not have a fire to stop in the first place. Let's eliminate the fires that are human-caused."

Contributing: Geoff Liesik, Sam Penrod, Andrew Adams

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards