Utah expands aerial firefighting options ahead of potentially hot, dry summer

Members of the Diamond Fork Helitack crew pose in front of a new helicopter the state is contracting. The team will help with  first response when a new wildland fire begins.

Members of the Diamond Fork Helitack crew pose in front of a new helicopter the state is contracting. The team will help with first response when a new wildland fire begins. (Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's wildfire season is, thankfully, off to a slow start.

However, state firefighters anticipate fire conditions will start to pick up, soon. Meteorological summer begins this weekend and updated, long-range projections still list Utah as having strong odds of above-average temperatures and slightly higher odds of drier-than-normal conditions between Saturday and Aug. 31.

The first half of June is shaping up to be particularly warmer than normal, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. Temperatures may reach 90 degrees along the Wasatch Front on Saturday, but the prospect of warmer conditions is projected to remain the dominant trend through at least June 11. There's also a chance for some rain and thunderstorms.

Both the immediate and long-range outlooks pose potential wildfire concerns, but the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is also expanding its ways to combat fires this year. It announced Wednesday it is expanding helicopter operations to provide faster response to new starts.

"Adding this helitack crew is the next logical step in expanding our aviation capabilities within the division," Mike Melton, the division's deputy state fire management officer for aviation, said in a statement.

Preventing new starts

Utah's drought situation is about the best it has been since at least 2020; the U.S. Drought Monitor lists about a quarter of Utah as "abnormally dry," including less than 1% of the state in moderate drought. As such, the wildfire season hasn't been as active as other recent years.

The largest fire, thus far, is the Leota Fire within the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in Uintah County, which burned about 137 acres in April. The Great Basin Coordination Center lists Utah as having normal fire conditions heading into meteorological summer.

But that could change if the long-range forecast comes to fruition. The center's latest projections list above-normal fire risks developing in northwest Utah by July, largely because the long-range outlook projects that the southwest monsoons could be "delayed or weaker" this summer.

"The focus over the next few months will be watching the precipitation pattern and temperatures and the fine fuel growth," it wrote in its May-August outlook, adding that a weaker monsoon season could create "significant fuel drying" and "better chances of above normal fire potential" this summer.

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New vegetation growth is one reason why there's concern heading into the season. Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands officials say grass and shrubs have grown "tall and thick" in many places from the better precipitation and above-average snowpack over the past two winters.

This, they say, can create "extreme wildland fire conditions" once it dries out.

"It's crucial we remain vigilant and keep wildfire risk at the top of our minds this year," Kayli Guild, the division's prevention and communications coordinator, said in a statement last week.

Utah's annual closed fire season begins on Saturday and lasts through October, prohibiting most non-agriculture fires. Agriculture-related burns are allowed with the right permits and notification to the nearest fire department.

State firefighters say Utahns should also follow "Fire Sense" guidelines this summer:

  • Make sure your vehicle is not dragging any chains, its wheel bearings are well-greased and that tires are correctly inflated.
  • Completely extinguish fires before leaving a campsite. Campfire restrictions could be enacted in some places this summer depending on the conditions.
  • Find a "suitable" target shooting backdrop that is away from rocks and dry grass. Bring a fire extinguisher. Exploding targets aren't allowed on public lands.
  • Keep Chinese lanterns, sky candles, fire balloons and sky lanterns away from any dry vegetation.
  • Fireworks are allowed between July 2 to July 5 and from July 22 to July 25 in approved areas.

Expanding defense

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is adding a new helicopter crew when new fires do begin. The Diamond Fork Helitack crew will be stationed at Spanish Fork Airport during the summer, housing up to eight wildland firefighters who will assist with the "initial attack" when a new fire starts in the state.

The Type 3 helicopter — contracted to the state via Mountain West Helicopter over the next five years — can be used to send firefighters and equipment to the scene of new fires within Utah. It can also hoist a water bucket to help with suppression efforts from the air.

It's the state's contracted helicopter, joining fleets maintained by federal agencies.

"Adding this aircraft and crew augments our heavy lift aircraft capabilities by getting boots on the ground quickly into inaccessible areas as well as the wildland-urban interface," Melton said.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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