SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A drier-than-normal winter followed by spring rains producing early growth of grasses has wildfire officials foreseeing another dangerous summer.
"We're anticipating a year similar to last year," said Thomas Tidwell, supervisor of Wasatch-Cache National Forest. That also is the assessment by officials of the state Forester's Office and the Bureau of Land Management.
Last year, the fourth year of the continuing drought, brought 1,243 fires that burned 237,427 acres within Utah -- and which could have been a lot worse.
Due to the dangerous conditions last year, officials banned campfires.
"We got terrific cooperation from the public," said State Forester Joel Frandsen. "It could have been much worse."
In addition to campers eliminating campfires, "we had fewer recorded lightning strikes last season than the annual average" -- 325 compared to the average of 430." he said.
"It was so dry last spring that we didn't get normal grass growth. So there wasn't a lot of (easily ignitable) fuel to burn," Frandsen said. "If conditions had been normal, we would have had more and bigger fires."
Heavy fuels -- made up of dead trees and fallen limbs -- usually absorb a lot of moisture from melting snow, making them harder to ignite.
"With light snow like we have had this past several winters, these fuels are drier," said Tidwell.
Complicating this mix of conditions is the fact that Utah and other Western states have thousands of acres of disease-ridden forestlands.
Forests are losing pinion pine and Douglas fir to insects. There are thousands of acres of dry, dead spruce at higher elevations.
"There's no green left" in certain areas, said Frandsen. "Under these conditions, the ignition point is a lot easier to hit."
Meanwhile, some of the heavy-duty firefighting equipment has been taken out of service because of safety concerns.
These include 11 World War II-era air tankers that dump fire retardants. Two crashed last year, killing crew members, and nine of the oldest aircraft have been retired.
"Nationally, we have 32 aircraft left, and they are going through a specialized inspection program," said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Boise, Idaho, office of the National Interagency Fire Center.
Because of this process, "some may not be pressed into service as fires demand, and some may not pass (inspection) at all."
However, she said, "We have more heavy helicopters that each carry 2,000 gallons of retardant or foam."
In addition, the BLM has contracted for additional single-engine air tankers that carry 800 gallons.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)