Summer Fire Danger for Utah Remains a Guessing Game

Summer Fire Danger for Utah Remains a Guessing Game

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OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- Those on the front lines of predicting fire danger in Utah are not ready yet to commit to what the summer season may bring.

"It's a little early to be guessing," said Sheldon Wimmer, fire manager for the Bureau of Land Management, which handles thousands of acres in Utah desert areas.

Until the snows and spring rains of March and April are done, he said, he won't have any idea what he is dealing with.

But earlier this week the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho, said this summer's potential for fire is "normal to above normal."

Drought, warm temperatures and damaged vegetation have agency experts predicting a long and destructive fire season throughout much of the interior West this year.

The amount of vegetation damaged by drought and insects has been rising in the West, increasing the risk of wildfires.

"I just have real trouble" saying what will happen this summer, said Jim Thomas, U.S. Forest Service fire manager for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. "I watch the weather, and they're wrong three days ahead."

Even Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the U.S. Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said it's too early to say what sort of water year it is going to end up being.

The drought is not over yet, he said, because reservoirs are still low and underground aquifers are down. But even though snowpacks have been falling in the past few weeks, he is not giving up hope. A predicted snowstorm later this week should add to the snowpack again.

"As far as water supply goes, we're still in the game by far," he said. "We're right at average. We've got this storm coming up, and we've got March to see where we end up."

Wimmer said it is nearly impossible to say what the weather will do to fire potential at this stage of the game. Sometimes rain can even be bad, he said.

If April is very wet, for example, that will make cheat grass grow, which creates a severe fire danger in July and August.

He is concerned about pinion pine and juniper trees. After five years of drought, many of those have died, leaving a lot of fuel scattered around that could catch fire and burn.

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

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