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Carter Williams, KSL.com, File

Forest Service warns of high water levels, growing fire danger as northern Utah campsites reopen

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - May 15, 2020 at 2:02 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of U.S. Forest Service campsites and picnic sites reopened Friday. But in addition to following coronavirus guidelines, officials are reminding anyone spending time in northern Utah’s national forests to use caution around streams and rivers when dealing with fire.

That message comes as warmer temperatures are melting snowpack in Utah’s mountains and as an abnormal stretch with low precipitation is starting to dry out northern Utah’s vegetation.

Several northern Utah campsites reopen

Forest Service officials said dozens of campgrounds and picnic sites along six districts in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest reopened Friday. Those sites are:

  • Heber District: Aspen Grove, Lodgepole, Renegade, Soldier Creek and Strawberry Bay
  • Logan District: Box Elder, Bridger, Friendship, Guinavah-Malibu, Lodge, Pioneer, Preston Valley, Smithfield, Spring, Spring Hollow and Wood Camp
  • Ogden District: Anderson Cove, Botts, Cemetery Point, Lower Meadows, Magpie, Middle Inlet, Pineview Beach, Port Ramp Marina, Upper Meadows and Willows
  • Pleasant Grove District: Hope and Little Mill
  • Salt Lake District: Birches, Boy Scout, Cottonwood, Dogwood, Intake, Ledgemere, Loop, Lower Narrows, Mueller Park, Storm Mountain and Upper Narrow
  • Spanish Fork District: Balsam, Cherry, Diamond, Maple Bench, Ponderosa and Whiting

Unlike the state’s national parks, the sites reopened Friday weren’t closed due to COVID-19; rather, they were closed for the winter and until the sites were ready to reopen. That said, there are some coronavirus-related changes you should be aware of this year.

Friday’s sites were to be handled out first come, first serve, but Kathy Jo Pollock, spokesperson for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said all campgrounds will soon only be able to be reserved four days in advance, online at a federal website. Onsite cash handling, exchange and money counting will be eliminated.

Many forest roads and trails may still be closed due to snow in the mountains or muddy conditions. Officials said they will continue to monitor state and county regulations, as well as follow Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines related to the coronavirus.

"We do have a campground concessionaire company that runs our campgrounds, and they will be taking the appropriate precautions based through the CDC for people who are going to be out camping in individual units or group sites," Pollock said.

The CDC’s guidelines for outdoors and recreation include keeping at least 6 feet from others at all times, avoid crowded parks, and don’t go outside if you are sick or were recently exposed to COVID-19. Pollock added that people heading to campsites should follow Leave No Trace principles, as well not damaging USFS land by driving on muddy dirt roads or going past locked gates.

Rising water levels

Utah received a normal snowpack during the winter and early spring; most of the state ended up around 100% of the average snowpack. That snow has begun melting into streams and rivers with warmer temperatures the past few weeks.

This can be a dangerous time because the water is typically rushing more than any other time of the year, and it’s extremely cold. U.S. Forest Service officials are reminding anyone camping to stay away from the banks of the streams and rivers because they could easily get swept in.

"Please don’t go into and enter the streams and rivers. They are flowing higher at this point in time; we’re still not at the peak of the runoff. There’s still a lot of snow, and the water is extremely cold," Pollock said. "Don’t stand on the edges of the streams or rivers. … even avoid sticking your feet in because it is extremely cold due to the runoff."

The water is cold enough that hypothermia can set in quick, she added. The agency warns anyone heading outdoors to especially keep their children and pets away from the water because both could easily fall in.

Growing fire risk

Spring is typically when northern Utah receives its most precipitation; however, the National Weather Service station at Salt Lake City International Airport hasn’t received a measurable amount of rain since April 16. That’s not nearly the longest stretch without rain, which is 63 days set in 1952, but last month was the driest April the weather service has recorded for the city in 146 years of record keeping.

The Salt Lake City numbers give a snapshot of precipitation in northern Utah. The weather service issued a hazardous weather outlook Friday that mentions that drying fuels, low relative humidity and strong winds from a system coming in will increase fire risks.

"Due to recent absence of rain, fine and medium size fuels are nearing record low dryness for this time of year. Be safe," the agency tweeted Friday morning.

The Forest Service also urges people heading to campsites to follow guidelines regarding campfires, such as extinguishing it until it’s "cold to the touch" before you leave your campsite, Pollock said.

"Don’t leave your fire burning, even if you are in your campsite and you go to bed. Please make sure it’s out," she said. "You never know when the wind can pick up and carry sparks."

Other recommendations include making sure that a campfire is small and isn’t near grass or nearby vegetation. Anyone camping should have a shovel and water with them just in case.

Carter Williams

KSL Weather Forecast