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SALT LAKE CITY — On July 31 the Upper Provo Fire began in the Uinta Mountains.
The fire was human-caused, though its specific origins remain under investigation. But five days after it was first spotted around midday Friday, the fire is still burning 480 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and is only 36% contained.
The Upper Provo Fire is just one of hundreds that fire officials have had to contend with since the year began. As of Aug. 2, the state of Utah had seen 951 total wildfire starts in 2020 — at least one ignition every day since April 18.
That pace is well ahead of the numbers from 2018 and 2019, and the fires have added yet another challenge to a state trying to juggle response to a global pandemic, economic fallout and a major earthquake. Utah's 2020 fires have so far burned about 186,000 acres and have occasionally even threatened population centers like Eagle Mountain.
Moreover, nearly 75% of Utah's 2020 wildfires have been caused by humans. Fireworks, campfires and target shooting are among the known instigators so far. But with the state facing drought, low humidity, high winds and other weather-related catalysts, it's becoming easier than ever to spark a costly wildfire.
Utahns have endured evacuations, property damage and months of uncertainty as the blazes rage, sometimes engulfing thousands of acres at a time. And for first responders who may battle fires for up to 16 hours a day for weeks at a stretch, the wildfires can mean exhaustion, extreme heat and direct danger.
Upper Provo Fire
Crews began surveilling the Upper Provo Fire from the air on Friday. Kim Osborn of the U.S. Forest Service said six smoke jumpers entered the area to stage resources.
"A smoke jumper is one of our firefighting resources," Osborn explained. "They actually parachute into the fire, so they can sometimes go to more remote places where there's no roads and you can't land a helicopter."
Air tankers and smaller single-engine planes have also been deployed to battle the fire from the air, Osborn said, dropping retardant on the blaze. But officials realized later those planes weren't very effective "because they fly a little higher," she said, and the retardant couldn't get where it needed to in the rugged terrain.
"So it's been most effective on this fire," she said, "to use helicopters with bucket drops. They have a long line underneath them with a bucket, and they can go right over the spot they want to, lower the bucket in there and drop the water."
In addition to air resources, engine crews have laid miles of hoses around the blaze and hand crews, generally working in teams of 20, have dug defensive lines around its perimeter. "They use chainsaws, shovels and Pulaskis, or whatever tools they may have," Osborn said, "to build a containment line."
Crews responding to the Upper Provo Fire were diverted twice Tuesday, officials said, when escaped campfires started new blazes nearby.
#UpperProvoWildfire here is a video clip from 8/4/20 where our helicopter and fire crew were diverted to a nearby abandoned campfire. This was #2 abandoned campfire in one day we responded to. Please put your campfire out. pic.twitter.com/ijIudRO0Bg— Utah Fire Info (@UtahWildfire) August 5, 2020
There are nearly 200 individuals currently fighting the Upper Provo Fire. Osborn said they've come from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the state of Utah and Wasatch County. "We all work together on a fire," she said. "It doesn't matter whose land it's on; we all work together."
Osborn said she doesn't have an estimate for when the fire may be completely contained but expects crews to be on the job for at least another week.
Cooperation and complexity
Kait Webb, fire communications coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said interagency cooperation is "essential" for most Utah wildfires, as it has been for the Upper Provo Fire.
"We rely on (cooperation) a ton here in Utah," Webb said. "Obviously there is a smattering of jurisdictions across the state, and wildfire doesn't stop at one boundary. It doesn't stop on state (lands) so that we keep only state resources there. So we will often have resources that are closest to a wildfire incident respond, even if maybe it isn't their jurisdiction. If they're in the area and we can get them there quickly to make an assessment and start suppressing, we'll send them that way."
Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesperson Jason Curry said local fire departments are usually the first to respond to wildfires.
"Most of the time they are called in via 911," Curry said, "and the local 911 center will take that call, figure out where the fire's happening, and dispatch the nearest fire department."
He said local departments usually put the fire out fairly quickly on their own. But for the wildfires that escalate beyond the resources of local departments, other resources are quickly assigned. County fire wardens work with local departments to assess needs and contact interagency dispatch centers.
"It will depend on where the fire is, the type of fire activity, the type of terrain it's burning in," Curry said. "They might order aircraft, they might order more engines, they might order Hotshot crews or other ground forces. That's all done through the interagency dispatch center. They will always dispatch the closest available response resources."
Hotshot crews are elite hand crews with more training and experience, Curry explained.
Fire response is divided into five tiers or types, with Type 5 fires being the least complex and Type 1 fires the most complex. The complexity of a fire depends on many factors including terrain, size, weather, structures and people threatened, and more, Curry said.
Firefighter and public safety — protecting life — is always the most important objective when battling blazes, he said. But firefighting can be a herculean task, with crews pulling up to 16-hour shifts 14 days in a row, and sometimes even more, without a day off. "You get a couple of meal breaks during the day," Curry said, "but that's about it."
'Foolish' decisions have 'got to stop'
"We're asking folks to give firefighters a break," Curry said when asked about wildfire prevention. "We're going to be moving into the season, now, where we get more lightning-caused fires, and that will oftentimes give us a full plate to deal with. So all of the foolish decisions that we've seen, all the recklessness and negligence that we've seen, has got to stop."
"We really need the public's cooperation and the public's help to reduce the number of human-caused starts that we're having," Webb agreed. "We already have a number of lightning starts here in Utah. We can't predict and we can't prevent those natural starts, but we can prevent those human-caused starts. It's really crucial, especially in a year like this when fire behavior has been so extreme ... that the public is being very conscious of what they might be doing that could start a wildfire."
"People think they just dump a bunch of water on (their campfire) and kind of stir it around," Osborn said. "They don't realize you have to dig down pretty deep, because all it takes is a wind to get back on there because it's hot down underneath in the sun, and then all of a sudden a little wisp pops up and you've got a flame again."
And fireworks, the cause of much destruction this year in Utah, are now illegal for discharge anywhere in the state until New Year's Eve.
The state is not only currently battling the Upper Provo Fire but also the 6,500-acre Richard Mountain Fire; the Split Fire; the Water Canyon Fire; the Howell Peak Fire; and the Pine Hollow Fire, which started in Arizona but grew so large it crossed the state line into Kane County.
And if tomorrow is anything like the last 109 days since April 18, there will be a new one to battle very soon.