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SALT LAKE CITY — As wildfires rage across the west, 2018 is shaping up as one of the worst wildfire seasons in Utah in the last two decades. The acreage burned and firefighting costs in our state already exceed the 10-year averages. To make the situation worse, firefighting resources are running thin, according to fire managers, and the wildfire season is only half over.
“Dry fuels. That’s the number one thing that stands out this year,” said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Utah received so little rain this summer after dismal snowfall in the winter. Dry fuels lead to more intense fires that are harder to fight and don’t give firefighters opportunity to attack. Wildfires usually settle down at night. Not this year, said Curry.
“It’s been active burning through the night, with an active flame front, even with no wind,” he said.
The Dollar Ridge Fire exploded east of Duchesne, last month, destroying more than 70 homes and scorching nearly 60,000 acres of land. It grew quickly over four days in extremely dry conditions driven by fierce winds.
“It’s (the dryness) been a big factor in all of the fires that we’ve seen,” Curry said.
However, Utah is still a long way from experiencing its worst fire season on record. So far this year, 933 fires have burned more than 140,000 acres of terrain. The state has spent an estimated $47 million on wildfire suppression. That’s about what the state spent last year to suppress fires on nearly 250,000 acres burned through the whole season.
In each of the past three years, fires in Utah scorched more than 100,000 acres, burning nearly a half million acres. Only a three-year stretch from 2005 to 2007 comes close to that acreage, partly because the Milford Flat Fire burned more than 360,000 acres in 2007. That was Utah’s biggest wildfire ever.
“It’s already been a long season for everybody,” Curry said. “There are a lot of people that are just tired, worn out, been going from one fire to the next.”
Right now, fire crews across the country are at National Preparedness Level 5, the top of the scale. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, that means the “potential for emerging significant wildland fires is high and expected to remain high in multiple geographic areas.”
“(The) biggest impact is the shortage of resources,” Curry said. “We don’t have hotshot crews, engines, aircraft readily available to put on every fire that need them.”
As a result, wildfire managers are prioritizing critical, but scarce, resources based on saving lives and homes. They’re also relying even more on local firefighters.
“Where resources are so thin, we’re seeing more extended assignments for those rural departments,” he said. “As we continue over the next several weeks, as far as fire season goes, it’s just going be more of the same as far as we can see.”
Firefighters have also had a lot of success this summer in Utah, putting out hundreds of blazes before they had chances to burn into larger fires.
“On the Hill Top Fire last night, dozens of homes saved, not only from the efforts of the firefighters that were there on scene at the time, but because of some work that was done previously on a fuel reduction project by the community,” Curry said.