SALT LAKE CITY — The West is already starting to burn.
Hot, dry conditions have fueled dozens of wildfires across the U.S.
Arizona has so far seen most of the destruction. Smoke and ash this week have been shrouding northern Arizona's largest city, Flagstaff, near which a blaze sparked by lighting has been creeping closer.
For the first time since 2006, the national forest surrounding Flagstaff, the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, will close down to the public on Wednesday amid wildfire risk.
In Utah, nine large wildfires are burning across the state. The Flatt Fire, sparked Friday by lightning in Washington County, is now over 14,443 acres and 15% contained. The Bear Fire, near Price, is now at over 12,170 acres and 93% contained. The Bennion Creek Fire, northwest of Scofield Reservoir, is now at over 8,313 acres and 80% contained. The Pack Creek Fire, southeast of Moab and suspected to be sparked by an abandoned campfire, is now over 8,900 acres and 62% contained, according to state fire officials.
And while there might be some relief from the intense heat wave in coming days, meteorologists are warning a sparse mountain rainfall forecasted for the next few days may come with its own wildfire dangers: lightning strikes.
"A big danger with fires is this exact scenario," said KSL meteorologist Grant Weyman, pointing to some "very few and far between" light storms forecasted in Utah's northern and southern mountains over the next couple of days.
Lightning — and wind — are likely, Weyman said. Mix that with only light rainfall, and "the scenario is not good," he said.
"It certainly is not good for wildfire risk right now," he said. "It's already hot and dry, and now we're throwing this on."
The historic drought strangling the West is here to stay. Even a healthy monsoon season won't be enough to quench the West's thirst, Weyman said.
"It's not going to take rain at this point," he said. "It's really going to be about snow."
Utah needs a plentiful winter season to build up its snowpack again to restore rivers and reservoirs.
"What we really need to help us out is what we saw a couple of years back when we had a really abundant snow year, where our snow amount was well above 100%," Weyman said.
Meanwhile, Utah politicians continue to push yellow as the new green — urging Utahns to voluntarily water their lawns only to "survive, not thrive."
As July approaches, the word "fireworks" has also become a lightning rod.
Next month, Utahns will be legally able to light fireworks — in nonrestricted areas — from July 2 to July 5 to celebrate the Fourth of July, and July 22 to July 25 to celebrate Pioneer Day on July 24.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has already issued a fireworks ban on areas that are under his authority: state land and unincorporated private land. He said if he had the power, he'd ban fireworks statewide, but he can't because of the state's existing fireworks statute.
The GOP-controlled Utah Legislature is unlikely to change that.
Despite calls from Utah House Democrats for the Utah Legislature to enter a special session to grant cities more "local control" over fireworks bans, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, issued a statement Monday arguing the state has "taken steps to empower local officials rather than imposing a statewide ban."
"I do not believe it is necessary for the Legislature to hold a special session at this time," Wilson tweeted. "Instead, it is my hope that local leaders will determine what works best in their communities and that Utahns will act reasonably and responsibly as we celebrate Independence Day and Pioneer Day together."
Under Utah law, local leaders are able to enact bans on use of fireworks in areas deemed risky due to "historical hazardous environmental condition," using a map they must submit to the county before June 1. Or, cities can make the case that their entire boundaries are vulnerable, based on evaluations made by fire marshals or legislative bodies if that authority isn't delegated.
Salt Lake City on Tuesday joined Park City in issuing a citywide ban on fireworks, after city fire officials determined the cities face exceptionally hazardous conditions amid the drought.
While some Utah Democratic lawmakers argue Utah law is "tying the hands" of some cities wanting all-out bans on fireworks amid the drought and wildfire risk, Salt Lake County officials on Monday begged Utahns to "be smart," commit to "personal responsibility" — and ditch the personal fireworks this year.
Here's what Utahns should know about the drought, wildfire risk and fireworks:
- Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Monday announced a citywide ban on "class C" or personal fireworks.
- Park City last week banned fireworks, explosive devices and open fires within Park City limits.
- Holladay also banned private fireworks last week.
- Other cities have enacted fireworks restrictions, including Eagle Mountain, which banned lighting fireworks within city limits for the day of, the two days before, and one day after July 4.
- Cottonwood Heights also prohibited fireworks in certain areas, though not citywide.
- Salt Lake County residents can use an interactive map to see where fireworks are and aren't prohibited this year. But just because the map shows fireworks are legal one day, that doesn't mean the map can't be updated later to reflect new restrictions when they're announced. Check back before lighting any personal fireworks for the July holidays.
- A statewide list of local fireworks restrictions is updated on the Utah Department of Public Safety's website, as they're received from local agencies.
Utah remains in a serious drought, with about 90% of the state still at "extreme" drought levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
An updated report from the U.S. Drought Monitor was posted today. Utah remains in a serious drought, with 90% of the state at "extreme" levels. Last year only 1% of Utah was labeled with extreme conditions. Please water less. #utahdroughthttps://t.co/nRDDcPagnvpic.twitter.com/ZhgtTeD1P6— Utah DNR (@UtahDNR) June 17, 2021
Pointing to the realities of climate change, but also blaming the West's "unprecedented" wildfire problem on decades of poor forest management, Sen. Mitt Romney last week unveiled a bill to create a new commission tasked with breaking free from past patterns and finding new ways to tackle the problem.
"Our state's getting drier. The fires are becoming bigger. The loss of life is more significant," Romney said. "And continuing to do the things the way we've done them in the past doesn't make a lot of sense."
- In southern Utah's Washington County, water district officials are already raising water rates on big water users, and expect to begin paying Utahns to "rip out" their lawns and replace them with xeriscaping, Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told lawmakers in a June 16 committee.
- Some Wasatch Front cities — like Herriman, South Jordan and West Jordan — have already adopted ordinances over the last six months to require all new development to be "water wise," according to Bart Forsyth, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. Cities of Bluffdale and Draper are on track to pass similar ordinances.
- To the north, Weber Basin Water Conservancy has already installed over 12,000 secondary water meters to better track water use. Some irrigation companies are taking punitive measures a step further this year, warning of penalties as high as $5,000 and a loss of 10 water turns if users flagrantly break the rules and are using water outside their allotted time slot.
- The Utah Division of Water Resources has a website, slowtheflow.org, that advises people on when it is appropriate to irrigate and also provides information on how homeowners can reduce their water usage.
- There's appetite in Utah for water users to save water using incentives for water wise landscaping, according to a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll, with almost half of Utahns saying they believe incentives would be the most effective tool to slow the flow. The next most popular choice — favored by 20% — would be to impose restrictions with penalties for water used on lawns or any other cosmetic purpose.
- Gov. Spencer Cox said last week he's "interested" in Nevada's new ban on "nonfunctional turf" amid the drought, and he said he's "exploring" possibly enacting something similar in Utah.
Contributing: Associated Press