Cox calls on Utahns to 'stay vigilant' as prime fire conditions begin to develop


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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox said Utahns and those visiting Utah must "stay vigilant" this summer because he believes this fire season will go one of two ways: Utah could repeat a welcomed trend in recent years of fewer new fire starts and much smaller wildfires, or everything can dramatically change in just one summer.

"We can have a great summer — an awesome summer here in Utah — or it can be a challenge," he said, after rifling off fire safety tips on Monday.

The state's fire season is off to a slow start this year after a second-straight above-normal snowpack collection period, but experts say concerning fire conditions are starting to develop.

Four of the state's five largest fires so far this year all started within the past two weeks. The largest of those was the 432-acre HAF Fire that sparked on Air Force land just west of the Great Salt Lake on Thursday before firefighters got it under control on Friday, according to the Utah Wildfire Dashboard.

Five of the six largest fires so far were determined to be human-caused, which is the case for a little more than four-fifths of the 189 fire starts this year. Human-caused fires also account for 1,097 of the 1,347 acres of land burned this year.

Some areas have also enacted new fire restrictions for the summer. For example, Zion National Park officials began enforcing the park's campfire ban in Watchman Campground over the weekend.

Fire conditions are worsening after a slightly drier-than-normal spring. Utah received an average of 3.55 inches of precipitation during meteorological spring this year, about 0.18 inches below the 20th-century normal, per National Centers for Environmental Information data released on Monday.

More than half of the state's spring total came in March. While Utah's average temperature this spring was only the 45th-warmest since 1895, temperatures drastically increased with a heat wave that began last week. It's forecast to intensify this week, as temperatures could reach triple-digits across parts of the Wasatch Front on Wednesday and Thursday.

Lead meteorologist at the Great Basin Coordination Center Basil Newmerzhychy speaks as he joins with Gov. Cox and other officials to bring awareness to the potential of fires during a press conference at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Lead meteorologist at the Great Basin Coordination Center Basil Newmerzhychy speaks as he joins with Gov. Cox and other officials to bring awareness to the potential of fires during a press conference at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

It doesn't help that federal forecasters project that this year's monsoon season could be delayed or diminished by shifting oceanic patterns, citing previous summers when an El Niño pattern transitioned back to a La Niña one.

"This year — unlike the last two years — the monsoon is expected to be not as prominent," said Basil Newmerzhycky, a meteorologist for the Great Basin Coordination Center.

Newmerzhycky explained that this doesn't mean there won't be any monsoonal showers; however, it could mean having a couple of weeks of rain instead of over a month of rainy days over the summer.

"In any event, that kind of delay in the monsoon will have the potential to keep the fire season going longer in areas across Utah," he added.

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The Great Basin Coordination Center updated its seasonal fire outlook last week to reflect the drying conditions and potentially lackluster summer monsoons. Parts of central Utah are listed as having above-normal fire risk for June and July, while northwest Utah is listed as having above-normal risk for July and August before conditions may improve.

In a video presentation of the outlook posted last week, meteorologist Gina Palma explained that the higher risk is also tied to "increased fine fuel loads" such as grass, shrubs and trees that grew after back-to-back wet winters. The outlooks could change, but she said the agency is still "expecting a busier fire season and potentially a longer fire season this year" within the Great Basin region of Utah, Idaho and Nevada.

That's why fire safety may matter more this summer.

"A simple mistake can cause a lifetime of consequences for firefighters, for residents, for habitat and the wildlife," said Chris Delaney, state fire management officer for Utah's Bureau of Land Management office. "Just take an extra second before going out on your public lands."

Gov. Cox and other officials gather to bring awareness to the potential of fires during a press conference at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Gov. Cox and other officials gather to bring awareness to the potential of fires during a press conference at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Utah Fire Sense lists a handful of tips that can help reduce fire starts:

  • Keep all vehicles, including off-highway vehicles, off of dry vegetation and make sure no chains are dragging.
  • Completely extinguish fires before leaving a campsite.
  • Find a "suitable" target shooting backdrop that is away from rocks and dry grass.
  • Keep Chinese lanterns, sky candles, fire balloons and sky lanterns away from any dry vegetation.
  • Fireworks are allowed from July 2 to July 5, and from July 22 to July 25 in approved areas.

While Cox said he thinks this summer could go two different ways based on the conditions, he also said Monday that he hopes everyone will think of the firefighters who respond to every fire before doing something that could spark a new one.

"I ask that you keep these guys safe," he said. "They're going to do whatever it takes to protect the lives of people, and then next to protect property where they can. But we don't want to put them in that situation, so let's be smart about what we're doing and keep Utah safe this summer."

Contributing: Shara Park

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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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