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Drought Set The Stage For A Tough 2018 Wildfire Season, State Forester Says

Photo of wildland firefighters.
Courtesy: Dollar Ridge Fire
A hotshot crew heads back out to the Dollar Ridge Fire, July 14.

Utah experienced its driest year on record in 2018, leaving forests and range that had little soil moisture to begin with even more vulnerable to igniting in what turned out to be an extraordinary — and costly — fire season.

All told, the total cost of fighting this year’s fires is expected to be around $110 million, with about one third of that will be shouldered by state and local agencies. Normally, the state and local costs are closer to $11 million a year, according to the state forester.

In October, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert  issued an emergency drought declaration.

“The ramifications of drought extend beyond our depleted water supply,” said Herbert in signing the order. “Drought harms our industries, agriculture, recreation and wildlife, and it worsens wildfire conditions and air quality.”

To illustrate how challenging firefighting conditions were in 2018, State Forester Brian Cottam recalled the story of a veteran firefighter who’d just extinguished a northern Utah grass blaze last summer. As the crew headed for the next fiery patch, they turned back to witness something they’d never seen before: the fire they’d just doused flared up from the roots.

“A lot of what we experienced this past fire season was exacerbated by the drought,” Cottam said.

In many ways, 2018 proved to be a remarkable year for wildfire, Cottam said.

Nearly a half-million acres burned - about three times more than normal. That makes 2018 the second-worst year in terms of acres burned of the last 15 years. Only 2007 - the year of the Milford Flat Fire, the largest in recorded state history - saw more acres burned.

A photograph of a smoky sky.
Credit Courtesy: Pole Creek Fire
The 2018 fires pumped soot into the air that caused pollution spikes for days at a time on the Wasatch Front. An image from the Pole Creek Fire, Sept. 16.

The seven-year average for the typical size of fires is 122 acres. This year it was 370 acres.
A new wildfire broke out somewhere in the state every day between early May and early October.

The devastation became personal, too, especially in the areas scarred by the Dollar Ridge and Pole Creek Fires over the summer. Wildfire destroyed about 400 structures this year, according to Cottam, and one in every four of those structures was a home.

Utah also suffered a loss outside state borders, when a battalion chief from Draper, Matthew Burchett, was killed battling the Mendocino Complex Fire in California. An investigation of Burchett’s death later showed that a tanker dropped retardant on a tree that fell and killed the career wildland firefighter.

Herbert recognized the importance of managing Utah’s wildfire costs and prevention programs in his budget proposal for next year. He’s asking the State Legislature to approve nearly $16 million to cover firefighting costs and preventative work like thinning forest undergrowth and recovering fire-scarred landscapes.

Credit Renee Bright/KUER

In addition, the  U.S. Forest Service has ordered a special review of the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires, lightning-caused fires which burned more than 120,00 acres and threatened homes in Utah County. The results of a “Facilitated Learning Analysis” still have not been reported.

“We are constantly looking for those lessons learned: What lessons did we learn with this fire that we can pass on?” said Terry Swinscoe of the Forest Service’s regional office in Ogden

Basil Newmerzhycky, who leads wildfire prediction for the Great Basin Coordination Center, said the story of Utah’s 2019 fire season is just beginning.

“A lot of the pieces of the puzzle that predict the severity of the upcoming fire season will be laid out this winter,” he said. “One of the important factors will be precipitation and snowpack - the less of it we have, like we had last year, the larger area of our upper elevations which are forested could be prone.”

He added that a wet year could also trigger a bigger wildfire season by promoting grass growth on the range that can dry up and become fuel for wildfire.

Newmerzhycky concluded: “There’s no way of telling now.”

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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