Drought has Officials Expecting Tough Wildfire Season

Drought has Officials Expecting Tough Wildfire Season

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Conditions are ripe for a damaging wildfire season in Utah's elevated forest land, according to projections from the National Interagency Fire Center.

The agency has listed southern Utah as one of three areas with the greatest fire risks, along with Southern California and the Four Corners region of Arizona.

Though more than 8,300 acres of California are already ablaze in an early start to the fire season, officials don't expect trouble in Utah for a few more weeks.

The agency has already battled fires in the Northwest, Arizona and Idaho.

"I think those are indications that much of the interior West, which would include Utah, is going to have an active fire season," said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather manager at the Boise, Idaho-based fire center.

Problem spots in Utah include the Cedar Mountain area in the southwest, the Manti-La Sal National Forest in the southeast, and the southern-facing slopes of the Uinta mountains, said Dave Hogan, meteorologist in the Eastern Great Basin Coordination Center for the Interagency Wildfire Dispatch Center.

Hogan said the state's 6-year drought, combined with an early snowmelt, above-average tree mortality, insect attacks weakening plants and low levels of moisture in dead plants leave officials bracing for worse than normal wildfires.

"We're expecting a repeat of record or near-record dry fuels conditions from last year," Hogan said.

However, despite those conditions, fires burned only about 148,000 acres in Utah last year, including 32,000 acres of prescribed burns. In 2000, almost 228,000 acres burned throughout the state.

Hogan said the severity of this year's fire season depends on the weather.

"If the weather cooperates, we can still have normal or below-normal seasons," he said. "The things we look for are fewer lightning strikes and higher humidity.

"If humidity is high enough, then crews can handle fire starts."

Hogan estimated that about 80 percent of Utah's wildfires are caused by lightning. That's much different than areas like California, he said, where many wildfires are caused by people.

Utah's drought has left the state's forest land at greater risk of fire because the moisture has weakened existing vegetation. At lower elevations, typically covered in grass, drought stunts the growth of vegetation so there's less to fuel a fire.

Hogan said Utah's wildfire season could start a week or two ahead of its average schedule. For southern Utah, he said the onset is usually in early June, while in northern Utah it typically begins near the end of June or in early July.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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