Enjoy your trip to the lake, spend nights beneath the stars, but check with your local fire department before you make a campfire. This summer came earlier than the last, and the consequences of a dry winter are already visible. Many counties in Utah have already prohibited fires and fireworks because of the strong winds, low humidity and dry fuels.
Fire is a complex creature. Unpredictable and relentless as the wind, fire is still misunderstood and difficult to extinguish in an environment where it thrives. Preparing for fire season is a task that takes decades in planning and years of labor. Forest service crews, state agencies and wild land firefighters can’t do all the work though. Prevention only lasts so long, and this summer has turned the full focus to suppression. Fires are burning throughout the state.
In the southwest, beetle-killed forests, dried grasses and shrubs are as abundant as oxygen to any ignitions in the region.
Communities continue to move further and further into the wild land environment. Access for firefighters, abundance of water and vegetation type and proximity are all factors in the ongoing topic of defensible space. The likelihood that a home will survive an oncoming wildfire depends on the homeowner. Vegetation clearance and water tanks might not prevent fires, but suppressing a house fire might not be necessary if the fire can’t directly impact the structure. Fire travels up the average slope more than 15 times faster than on open ground, and firefighters can’t keep up. The adage “location, location, location” fits perfectly.
Resources for incident commanders are at a new low. Budgets have been cut, and federal and state agencies are committed to numerous fires already. Arial accidents have become almost regular in southern Utah. The loss of two fixed-wing air tankers in one day has put even more pressure on ground forces. Although tankers from Canada have been ordered and those already on incidents are working full force, helicopters that can access rougher terrain are committed to large incidents early in the season. Fire danger will continue to rise as the summer presses on. Last year, record-sized fires burned in Arizona and Texas. New Mexico is burning beyond previous records, and Utah seems to be trending towards a record year already.
Firefighters do several things well. They make potential fuel, the tress, grass and shrubs unavailable to the fire, or they light fires to burn at a lower intensity before head, or running fire, approaches. These are suppression techniques used for over a century. They work, sometimes. Spotting, crowning and running are terms frequently used when suppression efforts fail.
Wildfires have potential just like hurricanes. They can create their own weather, dissipate at any given time and change direction in a moment.
Prevention is everyone’s responsibility. Keeping a bucket of water nearby the campfire while roasting marshmallows is a form of fire suppression, building a rock enclosure for the fire is a form of prevention.
While national budgets and state budgets may not be as large as previous years, firefighters are still hard at work. Although not as many positions are filled, the ones on the ground are key to keeping small fires small. The Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service have seen the largest cuts while the National Forest service and State of Utah have been able to maintain their numbers.
Many agencies continue to work on mechanical projects to maintain healthy forests. These projects include cutting tress to thin forests to healthy tree stands and creating fire breaks in potentially fire-prone areas. Prescribed fires were minimal this spring due to the early summer and conditions that made putting fire on the ground too dangerous to control safely.
The news will report fire containment, but the work is far from over, even when a wildfire is contained. Many aspects of fire involve a close study of intensity, consumption and char depth. Cost assessments and reports begin pouring into regional and national offices. Models and studies are generated for five and 10-year fire plans that determine the need for project work and for future educational purposes. A wildfire might reach containment, but control and extinguishment might not happen until the first snowfall in bigger forests. Grass fires are a completely different animal. Furious and fast, a fire spreading over open ground with dry grass driven by the wind can be deadly. They build and run as fast as they stop and die. No two fires are the same
This summer has the potential to be catastrophic if individuals are negligent. It only takes a little forethought to prevent a fire.
Don’t park a hot car on tall grasses. Be sure to douse stir and douse again any fires you may use in the wilderness or campsites. Fireworks may be fine in city limits and areas with no potential to spread fire, but they are a big mistake anywhere else. Live bushes and trees will spread fire easy due to the dry climate and high winds that have been persistent early this season.
Have fun this summer and be safe as you enjoy the outdoors. Sticking to the water might be a good idea. After all, it’s not Florida, where fire actually does burn on water.
By Collin Lawrence