Prescribed Burns on Hold Due to Drought

Prescribed Burns on Hold Due to Drought

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- With conditions in Utah getting dry and hot early in the season, federal and state agencies have postponed some prescribed burns out of concern that they could become uncontrollable wildfires.

Normally at this time of year, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, state of Utah and National Park Service would be lighting fires in targeted areas to eliminate dense undergrowth and reduce future fire danger.

However, this year fire managers are delaying the burns over several thousand acres near Circleville, Cedar City, Panguitch and Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks until fall.

If dry weather persists, the Forest Service may postpone completion of an 800-acre burn near Escalante that was started this spring.

"We don't have the right weather window right now and we probably won't until the fall," said Donna Owens, the district ranger for the Powell District of the Forest Service. "It got dry and hot early."

Some past prescribed burns have gotten out of control. Last year, two prescribed burns near Panguitch on the Dixie National Forest combined to scorch 78,000 acres and cost $6 million to extinguish. Known collectively as the Sanford fire, these blazes were caused, in part, by severe drought conditions, according to a Forest Service review of the fire published earlier this year.

One of the lessons learned was that fire managers need to pay more attention to lack of moisture in the burn areas.

Moisture content runs low during droughts, causing fires to burn hotter and faster.

Land managers must now look for other ways to reduce wildfire danger. One tool is the "mechanical" removal of dense undergrowth.

"Mechanical thinning is the politically correct term for cutting down trees," said Bruce Fields, the fuels management specialist at Bryce Canyon National Park. "The intention is to reduce the small trees that will catch fire and spread into the large trees."

But mechanical thinning isn't the way nature would take care of the problem on its own, and fire managers say it isn't always as effective as burning.

"In a lot of areas, fire is just the most appropriate tool," said Paul Briggs, a fuels program manager with the BLM in Cedar City. "If we have to delay burning for a couple of years until we get back into a wetter cycle, we will probably do that."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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