SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- This year's fire danger is higher than normal, with the six-year drought and early snow melt increasing the likelihood of a bad wildfire season, according to fire officials.
"Essentially, all of the higher elevations or forests of Utah are looking at above-normal fire potential," said Dave Hogan, a Bureau of Land Management meteorologist based in Salt Lake City.
The National Interagency Fire Center has included southern Utah as one of three areas with the greatest fire risks, along with Southern California and the Four Corners region of Arizona.
Factors contributing to the higher-than-normal fire danger, Hogan said, include the continuing drought and winter snowpack that has been melting early this year.
That early melt means an extended dry period in the foothills and mountains where dead, dry trees already increase the fire risk.
"Either they die from lack of water or they're dying because bugs get to them because they're weak," Hogan said.
Insects are wreaking the most damage in the mountains of southeastern Utah, on the south slope of the Uinta Mountains, and on Cedar Mountain near Cedar Breaks.
Drought has turned the dead vegetation bone dry, with only 3 to 4 percent water content, as compared to the usual 5 to 6 percent.
In some areas, such as the rangelands north of Cedar City, the fire risk appears more normal. The early drought in the area has stunted grasses, providing less vegetation to potentially burn.
Spring and summer rainfall brings on more grasses and more fuel for fire if the weather turns hot and dry and lightning storms spark blazes. But abundant rains could lessen the fire threat, said Kathy Jo Pollock, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman with the Utah Interagency Fire Center.
"But again, that all depends on Mother Nature," Pollock said.
Meteorologists say it is too early to predict long-term weather patterns for the end of spring and summer.
Fires burned about 148,000 acres in Utah last year, including 32,000 acres that were part of prescribed burns. In 2000, almost 228,000 acres burned throughout the state.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)