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Coronavirus affecting way firefighters train for wildfire season

Firefighters work at the scene of a brush fire by the Jordan River in South Jordan on Thursday, April 9, 2020.
Firefighters work at the scene of a brush fire by the Jordan River in South Jordan on Thursday, April 9, 2020. The fire is a wake-up call that fire season is right around the corner.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

DRAPER — Firefighters are normally training for wildfire season at this time of year, but due to coronavirus concerns, things are already looking to be very different.

It’s still colder in higher elevations where snow-capped mountains can be seen throughout Utah, but in the Salt Lake Valley, it’s been warm enough to see some brown patches of grass instead of green.

“Even though you’re seeing snow up in the mountains, still, these light fuels can dry out incredibly quickly,” said Kait Webb, who is a fire prevention manager for Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Some areas have dried out so fast with recent higher temperatures that fire crews were called to two different brush fires along the Jordan River Trail in South Jordan and Draper Thursday afternoon. The fires were put out quickly. One of the fires only burned roughly 3 acres, but it serves as a reminder that winter weather, for the most part, is behind us.

“Yes, it’s a wake-up call that fire season is right around the corner,” said Webb.

It’s completely normal to see some small fires start in April, but there’s nothing normal about the start of this fire season, particularly because of coronavirus concerns.

Jason Curry, with the Utah Division Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said on Thursday, April 9, 2020, said there are a lot of things wildfire fighters are having to think about in terms of distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Winston Armani, Deseret News

“There are a lot of things we’re having to basically adjust and make allowances or make special rules for,” said Jason Curry, who is also with the division.

He said Hotshot crews and firefighters who specialize in digging hand lines have already been hired in the past few months for the upcoming fire season.

Because of social distancing restrictions, training and group workouts have been put on hold for now. That’s difficult for a profession where being together as a group, and near each other, is part of the appeal of the job.

“It is kind of against the nature because we’re always working shoulder to shoulder in a hand crew, or even in an engine,” said Curry. “There are a lot of things we’re having to think about in terms of that distancing.”

A fire management leadership meeting and training was set to be held in central Utah next week. It’s a yearly meeting where fire managers from across Utah meet to discuss things like fire forecasts, new policies, issues, etc; but that meeting was canceled and moved to an online format.

“It will still be a big meeting, but it will all be virtual now,” said Curry.

But when there’s a fire, someone has to put it out.

“That’s why we are going to treat every fire as if it’s got the potential to be the big one,” said Curry. “Even if it means pouring more resources in on the front end, we want to keep all of these fires as small as possible, so we lessen the chances of having those big fires.”