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Utah's Second Largest Wildfire Triggers Second Look, New Strategies

For eight months, experts have been reflecting on smarter approaches to assessing and addressing wildfire risks.

There’s a lot about the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires that was unexpected, defying decades of know-how that fire officials brought to the challenge of fighting them.

Nobody expected drenching rain that failed to douse the flames. They were surprised by strong, gusty winds that spread the flames for 10 of 11 days and how the fire season heated up in mid-September, rather that tapering off.

In the end, the fires burned together, scarring 120-thousand acres last August and September and becoming the second-largest wildfire in Utah history.

Now, after eight months of studying what went wrong, forest officials say in a report released last week that the most important lesson of the last summer might be that they need to coordinate their wildfire information better.

“There were some hard lessons learned, and the relationships are now stronger, the understanding of communication expectations are much clearer,” said Brian Cottam, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “That is a good thing that came out of this.”

The public, along with elected officials like Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, harangued fire officials after two patches of fire that started in late August began to blow up despite 1 to 2.5 inches of rain and cooler temperatures. The report tells how one state fire official pressed for a more aggressive attack on the two small fires just hours before they blew up. Wildfire pros reflect in the report how they were flabbergasted by one surprising development after another.

“I could hardly believe what I was hearing,” one fire officer says in the report, reflecting on how quickly the fire shot five miles forward, toward Highway 89, on September 12.

Meteorologists called the 2018 “water year” Utah’s driest on record. Days later, the fire was finally extinguished.

Cottam said the staff of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest met all winter to discuss the decisions made and to outline a better communication strategy. He, like Forest Supervisor Dave Whittekiend, pointed out that no structures burned, and no one was killed or injured.

Last month, the Forest Service’s parent agency, the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed what they’re calling a “shared stewardship agreement” that settles on measures aimed at preventing extreme wildfires, such as thinning and prescribed burns.

“Moving forward, we’re looking at an increased level of communication with all of our partners, Utah Forestry Fire and State Lands and all of the municipalities that surround the forest,” said Whittekiend.

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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