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A Record-Dry Spring And COVID-19: The Two Forces Shaping Utah's Fire Season To Come

Photo of a fire burning the golden grasses at the base of a hillside and covering the feature in smoke
Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands
The Anderson Junction Fire burned 786 acres in Washington County on Monday, destroying three buildings and damaging one more. It was started by a vehicle dragging a chain.

ST. GEORGE — The past week was a blur for firefighter Mike Melton.
Over five days, he’d responded to six fires as a Southwest regional manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. And fire season hadn’t officially begun. 

“It’s a little early for us to be going at this type of pace,” he said on a desert overlook near Zion National Park after fighting a blaze. 

With the official start of fire season — defined by state law as June 1 — more than a week away, the recent fires could offer a glimpse of what summer and fall may have in store for the rest of the state. 

Melton attributes the early activity in Southwest Utah to hot temperatures, a big grass crop, high winds and lots of people flocking to the outdoors for relief from social distancing. In northern Utah, conditions have been especially dry.

“Up here in Salt Lake, the April to May period has been the driest on record by a significant amount,” said Glen Merrill, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Typically, these are our wettest months.”

Salt Lake City has received roughly a third of an inch of precipitation since April 1, according to the National Weather Service. By comparison, the city saw 7.23 inches fall over roughly the same time period last year, which was the second wettest on record

Last year’s wet winter created an abundant grass crop across Utah. Much of that growth has survived into this year. But the recent dry spell now sweeping most of the state means that those grasses will lose their moisture quickly and become an easily ignitable fuel source for wildfires throughout the summer and fall, Merrill said.

The one exception to that trend is Southwestern Utah, which has not seen a huge drop-off in spring rain, Merrill added. The region could still see an active fire season, though, if the monsoon season brings an average amount of thunderstorms to the area.

Fighting Fires In A Pandemic

But the dry patch is not the only aspect of this spring that feels unusual for fire managers across the state.

Generally, the month or two leading up to fire season is jam-packed with in-person training, meetings and conferences, ” said Kaitlyn Webb, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Webb added that the various fire agencies in the state, including the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, have had to shift much of their pre-season planning and training programs online to comply with federal, state and local COVID-19 protocols.

Agencies say that the move has not affected their ability to recruit new firefighters and maintain a full staff. But switching preparations online is not the only change that firefighting operations have had to make.

“Often, when you would walk into a base camp, it’s a little city that’s set up. There are tons of individuals in a small space,” Webb said. “That’s going to look really different this year.” 

Individual fire teams will be treated as family units and kept separate from one another. Food, which is normally served at a buffet, will be distributed in fully sealed, single-serving containers. Bathrooms will also have new rules that designate certain facilities for specific teams — and all of them will be cleaned more regularly.

Utahns might also see more vehicles than normal responding to fires — a strategy to prevent too many firefighters from being in a confined area and keep them safe.

Those frontline workers are a finite resource and training new people takes time, said Melton. 

“If this goes on a couple of years, it’ll probably hurt us a bit,” he said. “But one year, we can deal with that.” 

The most important thing, he said, is that Utahns are careful when in the outdoors this summer. Two thirds of the wildfires in the state last year were caused by humans, according to state fire officials.

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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