This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Wildfire officials like Jason Curry are keeping a close eye on the possibility of a wetter spring than Utah typically sees. The state badly needs it to keep fires in check.
Northern Utah saw five wildfires, between 10 and 120 acres, a week ago. Small fires normally break out here and there during the late winter and spring, even though wildfire season doesn't technically start until June 1, said Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. But he said that last weekend's fires "were a little more alarming" than what experts expect this time of year.
"Things are much more dry, and frankly, more ready to burn, in February than in [recent] memory," Curry said.
It's been a history-making winter, with springlike temperatures and a lack of precipitation across the state. And if vegetation stays dry, even those normally small, isolated fires could pop up more frequently and turn into much more serious blazes, making for a long and taxing wildfire season.
"We are looking forward to [the rest of] February and March," Curry said. "If they aren't [wet], then we will have some pretty significant concern for fire season."
The North Summit Fire District is already training for the wildfire season, a month or two ahead of schedule. The firefighters know what a devastating wildfire can look like, having fought the Rockport 5 Fire in 2013 that destroyed eight homes as flames tore through the mountainside neighborhoods above Rockport Reservoir. It's only February, but already they have had two small, isolated fires.
"They haven't amounted to be anything, but the potential's there and that's the part where we don't want to get caught [behind]," said Tyler Rowser, spokesman for the fire district.
A change in the weather might be on tap for northern Utah this week. Meteorologists predicted colder, arctic air and a chance of rain and mountain snow to arrive Sunday night and last through at least Tuesday. Looking further ahead, the Climate Prediction Center expects above-average precipitation for Utah in the next three months as the high pressure breaks down and moves elsewhere, said Monica Traphagan, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.
However, it would take a lot of rain and snow to make a difference for wildfire season, Curry said.
Salt Lake City alone has had the third-lowest snowfall on record from Dec. 1 through Feb. 3, with only 6 inches to show for the winter thus far, according to the weather service. High pressure in the middle levels of the atmosphere is keeping storms far north of Utah, and temperatures well above normal. In fact, Saturday's high broke the record for Salt Lake City's warmest day in February since 1886.
"It's been strange," Traphagan said.
Curry said they are watching the forecasts closely. At least the soil saturation is "a little bit better than you might expect," he said, so a lot of precipitation would flow downhill to feed rivers and water plants.
Wildfire officials are preparing for the worst the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are already working on 13 mitigation projects this week. Last year, the Utah State Legislature gave them $1.9 million for such efforts, such as prescribed burns, and they're hoping lawmakers approve another and even higher round of funding this year, Curry said.
Utah's firefighters will have outside assistance, too.
"If things get really serious here, we can start requesting resources from other states [to help]," Curry said. The way "the wildfire world" is set up, firefighting agencies around the country can easily and quickly dispatch teams to other states that need extra help, Curry said. Last year, Utah sent a number of firefighters to the Pacific Northwest, which was burning up during its own significant wildfire season. "It's a very efficient system."
Not all the responsibility for preparation falls to firefighters, though. Homeowners are encouraged to create "protectable spaces" around their houses by clearing vegetation.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, is pushing HB196, which would give homeowners a tax credit for taking such measures. The credit would reimburse homeowners for 50 percent of what they spend on mitigation. The bill has yet to reach a committee vote.