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SALT LAKE CITY — Record-breaking warm weather and unseasonably dry conditions have combined to create a rare February phenomena of heightened fire danger in northern Utah.
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands documented at least five fires over the weekend, including one high in the mountains of Tooele County that scorched 140 acres.
"It is pretty shocking that it is this dry in February," said division spokesman Jason Curry. "In my time here I have never seen a fire this big in February in northern Utah. It is very concerning about what we may see once fire season does get here."
All the fires were human-caused and several remain under investigation.
The heat and sunlight are drying things out.
"We have had temperatures that have ranged up to 28 degrees above normal," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "We are averaging 20 degrees above normal for February as of today (Monday), which is phenomenal when you think about the amount of energy going into a snowpack that was already small."
Firefighters don't have as many personnel to fight fires this February, which impacts how quickly crews can prevent flames from reaching Utah neighborhoods.
Before wildfire season starts, The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands usually has a crew of roughly 30-40 firefighters on hand, but closer to May, the crew increases to around 120 firefighters.
"When you're talking about February, a lot of those resources are not quite ramped up yet," said division spokesman Jason Curry. "The crews are still in their hiring process and still training. The engines are winterized and in storage and not in their normal location."
Curry said "things went very well" when state firefighters put out flames in Daniels Canyon, Tooele County, and Utah Lake, relying on combined resources from federal and local agencies.
Unified Fire Authority also fought weekend fires in Big Cottonwood Canyon and Camp Williams.
Firefighters relied on specialized tools, such as lightweight water hoses that are smaller in diameter and are "in the form of backpacks as you're hiking up the terrain," said Dave Ulibarri, PIO, Unified Fire Authority.
"We go from 1.5 to a one inch diameter hose to attack a wildfire versus what we do in a structure fire."
Unified Fire also used the Pulaski, a type of axe used for digging, "the trail down to the dirt so that when fire gets to our fire line, it goes out," said Ulibarri.
Ulibarri said these tools and other resources are typically stored on fire trucks through the winter, "but we don't anticipate pulling them out this early, especially before Valentine's Day."
Unified Fire usually hires about 40-45 extra people in anticipation of a wildfire season, which begins around May.
Investigators are still looking for information about the fire that burned Sunday in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Anyone with information can call Unified Fire at 801-840-4000.
With no significant valley storms logged in the Salt Lake City area since Jan. 12, soils and vegetation are extremely dry.
"The fuels are dry, we know that, " Curry said. "The grasses, they do not take long to respond to these temperatures and the heavier fuels like the brush and trees, it has been so long since they have had any moisture — everything out there is dry."
While there have been incidences of February brush fires before, Curry said the distinction this year is the frequency and scope of the blazes.
"When we get these winter thaws, it's not unusual to get a little fire of an acre or less," he said.
The Tooele County blaze, in particular, burned in rough terrain in a high mountain area and required a significant deployment of resources, he said. Given the dry conditions, the blaze easily eclipsed 100 acres in little time.
Conditions are not expected to change anytime soon, with high temperatures forecast to reach the low 60s by this weekend along the Wasatch Front.
"Our advice is for people to use more caution than they normally would in the winter months," Curry said. "This is not your normal February. It is much drier and more fire prone than any February I've seen. … It is a pretty grim picture for fire season if things continue the way that they have."
The early onset of wildland fire activity is also underscoring the division's push to the Utah Legislature to continue putting money into a statewide catastrophic wildfire reduction effort.
The division is requesting $2.5 million to continue with pre-suppression activities that target the most vulnerable areas of the state and ramp up community preparedness.
Areas of emphasis include reductions in noxious or invasive vegetation, boosting firefighting training and educating homeowners on creating "defensible space" protection buffers.
Curry said the division is also watching HB196 by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, that would give a tax credit of up to $2,500 to qualifying homeowners who take certain wildfire mitigation measures to protect their homes. The credit would reimburse them for up 50 percent of the expenses incurred.
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba