Wildfire danger extreme
‘Conditions looking scary,’ Sanpete fire warden says
By Robert Stevens
The 2020 fire season is upon us, and conditions are looking scary, says Sanpete County Fire Warden Thomas Peterson. But it’s not all bad.
“Our fuel moistures are super low,” Peterson says. “We are edging into severe drought conditions. We are sitting pretty critical, and with the lack of moisture (and) heat, wind plays the biggest role here.”
Fuel moisture is the term for how much water is soaked into the natural vegetation, says Peterson. When a year doesn’t get much early rainfall, everything dries out and sparks into a wildfire faster and stronger.
According to officials from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (DFFSL), last spring was the third driest spring on record.
That factor, combined with an increased number of people recreating outdoors during the pandemic, winds and low humidity continuing into July have resulted in heightened concerns about the wildfire season.
Peterson says typically, as much as 90 percent of the wildfires in Sanpete County are started by humans, as opposed to natural ignition sources such as lightning.
One of the most common activities that can lead to a human-caused wildfire is target shooting, says Peterson. He urges target shooters to be extremely careful and to only shoot into non-flammable backings, such as a mound of dirt, taking care to avoid shooting towards vegetation.
Peterson also urges people to take care not to park on dry grass or ride ATVs over dry grass. Also important is to keep your vehicles well maintained, such as tires and brakes, to reduce the risk of your vehicle contributing to a wildfire, as well as never allowing chains to drag on the ground when towing something.
Besides what not to do, Peterson also says there is something important you should do if you own a home adjacent to a wildland area.
“If you’re a homeowner in the wildland interface you should be maintaining your defensible space,” he said. “Anywhere with leaves or pine needles accumulated is exactly the kind of thing that lands us in a fire situation. Cleaning those up can go a long way to reducing risks.”
By preparing your wildland-adjacent property to mitigate a fire risk, you make an important contribution to keeping fire season manageable.
Peterson says Sanpete County has been doing much better than the surrounding areas this year when it comes to preventing human-caused wildfire.
“I’d really like to thank the public for how good of a job they’ve done thus far this year,” Peterson says. “The public is definitely doing their part. With the current conditions with COVID, that’s huge because we need our emergency response resources to be available, and the less they have to go out, the less chance they have of getting or spreading COVID and the more they are available for when we really need them.”
Peterson says so far this year, there have been been 32 wildfire responses, and all but five of those were caused by humans, but those numbers are lower than usual. The lightning from last weekend’s thunderstorm ignited a few, but they were managed quickly.
Despite things going smoothly here in Sanpete, there is still so much concern about wildfire this year that state officials are imposing the strictest fire regulations in a few years.
“We try really hard not to go into restrictions,” Peterson says, “and it’s been a couple of years since we have had to, but this year has more risk. I think if we’re not careful, with the conditions we’ve got, we could see catastrophic fire within Sanpete County pretty quick.”
Fire restrictions begin next Monday for unincorporated county, state and federally administered public lands in Sanpete, Millard, Juab, Sevier, Piute, Garfield and Wayne counties (see restrictions list box).
Restrictions have also been placed on BLM lands in the same areas, as well as the Fishlake National Forest and Capitol Reef National Park.
Towns and cities are not included in the restrictions.
On a statewide level, things are much worse than here in Sanpete, with 644 fire starts as of July 6, according to statistics from Utah Fire Info. More than 520 of them were set by humans. This same time last year, there were only 221. According to state officials, 150,000 acres have burned statewide so far in 2020.
The Fourth of July weekend is always a hotspot for fires, and the recent one was no exception, with 68 fire starts reported in Central Utah, 18 of them because of fireworks.