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SALT LAKE CITY — Moisture over the last few days helped Utah's wildfire forecast this spring, while much of the West can expect an above-normal fire year, according to fire forecasters.
Utah and three other states also recently received federal money to help prevent wildfires and improve wildlife habitat.
The U.S. Department of the Interior gave $4 million to four states, including Utah, to help prevent wildfires that threaten sage grouse habitat in the Great Basin region. That habitat is critical to the overall health of rangelands and wildlife. Utah's share is $811,000.
"If there's a high concentration of invasives (non-native plants), we will try to remove those and reseed using native plants and fire resistant plants," said Jason Curry with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Invasive plants, like cheatgrass, act as accelerants in wildfires, he said.
The Department of the Interior awarded the money to Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon to create fuel breaks and habitat treatments. Those projects are ongoing.
"We are told that we are in the lead terms of how effectively we spend this type of funding," said Curry.
Fire breaks have already proved successful in protecting homes in central Utah rangelands.
"When fire does occur, it helps us keep the fires smaller," said Curry. "When they hit that (the fire break), the fire intensity goes down, and we can then engage the fire."
Last year, Utah spent its entire $2.5 million fire suppression budget fighting fires in a below-average fire season year.
"It's enough to cover a light to medium season," Curry said.
But he said a large fire can burn through $1 million in fire suppression money very quickly. In 2012, the state spent $16 million, which required a supplemental appropriation from the Legislature.
'Above-normal' fire season ahead
Across most of the West, fire forecasters expect an above-average wildfire season.
"We know the fire season has become longer and more expensive," Curry said. "So, the new normal is a bigger fire season and higher fire intensity."
Winter conditions that included record-breaking high temperatures and low precipitation are among the reasons for wildfire worries.
We know the fire season has become longer and more expensive. So, the new normal is a bigger fire season and higher fire intensity.
–Jason Curry, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands
"We've got low-fuel moistures," Curry said. "We've got low-soil saturation. So, that is a pretty significant piece of the puzzle."
Tuesday, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell presented the Forest Service forecast on the 2015 fire season in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"Above-normal wildland fire potential exists across the north-central United States and above-normal wildland fire potential will threaten many parts of the West this summer," Tidwell said. "We anticipate another active fire year, underscoring the need to reform our wildfire funding."
The forecast indicates there is a 90 percent chance that this year's Forest Service fire suppression costs will be between $794 million and $1.657 billion, with a median estimate of $1.225 billion, potentially forcing the diversion of funding from other vital programs to support suppression operations.
The future weather is another piece of the puzzle for the forecast, which right now favors Utah and could lead to an average season if frequent storms bring moisture, as they did last year.
As fortunate as Utah has been with the recent moisture, lightning strikes are always a threat for wildfires. Curry points out the forecast can change quickly, and hot, dry and windy weather can whip up dangerous fire conditions.