INSIDE SOURCES

How bad is the Utah drought? We asked a firefighter

Jun 23, 2021, 4:35 PM | Updated: 7:45 pm
utah firefighter in action...
Utah firefighter and DJ Jon Smith battles a fire that spread to a structure in 2019. Photo provided by Jon Smith.

SALT LAKE CITY — If you want to know how bad the worst drought ever recorded in Utah really is, and what it means for fire season this year, you need to talk to a firefighter. 

Jon Smith, who you may know as a DJ on sister station 103.5 FM The Arrow, is also a volunteer firefighter in Utah. He joined Inside Sources host Boyd Matheson to share what he knows about fighting fires.

Fuel + air + heat = fire

Fires in June alone have torched more than 40,000 acres across the state. 

“This year, we are observing fire activity that we tend to see in August,” said Kait Webb, fire spokesperson and prevention coordinator for Utah Division of Forestry Fires and State Lands,

“We were talking during the break about something that you think everybody — if they could just get in their head — I think would really help in terms of our behavior and our action. It is found in the magic of the triangle,” Boyd said.

The fire triangle includes three elements a fire needs to ignite: heat, fuel and oxygen.

“There is fuel everywhere. And I’m not talking about gasoline. I’m talking about dry, light, flashy fuels — cheatgrass, junipers trees,” Smith said. 

Utah firefighter: “There is fuel everywhere”

Unlike perennial native grasses, cheatgrass is an annual grass. It grows in the spring, then dies off between late April and June, depending on precipitation. Cheatgrass happens to die just in time to provide fuel for the West’s fire season, according to the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Smith said wildfires will burn live trees and brush as well.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh well, these are live trees. They’re not going to burn.’ What happens is you get these fires burning, they suck all the moisture out of the living vegetation, and then it becomes dry vegetation. . . . These fires can travel upwards of 13 to even 14 miles per hour on the ground,” Smith said.

Boyd noted that could outrun the fastest runner on foot. 

Fighting fire starts with prevention

For target shooters and people lighting fireworks, Smith stressed that once a fire starts it can move fast, becoming difficult to extinguish, especially given Utah’s exceptional drought conditions.

“I’m a volunteer firefighter — I like shooting, I like fireworks, I love everything that you love doing,” he said. “But we are in 1,000-year drought. We are in a drought that no being on Earth has ever experienced in our lifetime.

Related: Research shows Utah is in a megadrought, along with much of the Southwest US

“And that is something that really needs to be considered before you light off fireworks or you go shooting in the backcountry . . . How are you going to manage this, because, depending on where you’re at, that fire can spread very, very quickly, and before you know it, you, your family, your campsite and homes in the surrounding area are fully involved,” he warned.

“Yeah, and you’re putting so many others at risk, well beyond your own safety, which we’re all concerned about. There’s a lot of other folks and their families hoping they get home at the end of the day as well,” Boyd said.

Smith closed by reminding listeners that people cause 90% of all fires, but 100% don’t need to happen.

Related: 

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app. 

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How bad is the Utah drought? We asked a firefighter