Drought conditions increase likelihood of a wildfire in winter
Dec 31, 2021, 4:37 PM
(Elias Funez/The Union via AP)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT — Fire experts say because of the continuing drought conditions in Utah, a wildfire like the one seen yesterday in Colorado is possible in Utah.
Wildfires in winter months are becoming more common across the West. The Deputy Director at Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, Jason Curry, says there is no longer a traditional fire season that starts in the summer and ends in early fall. He says at the department they call it a “fire year.”
“On paper, the fire season starts June 1 and goes through October 30. And we’re getting fires before and after that every year,” he said.
He said Utah is safe right now from a big wildfire because of the snow covering most of the state. But if temperatures get warmer and the snow melts, he said a fire like the one seen in Colorado could happen.
National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Struthwolf says the drought conditions in Utah increase the likelihood of a wildfire. Currently, 70% of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“The trend has been, for over 20 years or so, that we’re seeing more and more drought years than normal years. Until that changes, we’re setting ourselves up for fires that go well into the fall and winter,” Struthwolf said.
Struthwolf said 100 miles per hour winds are more common in Boulder County, where the fire happened, than in Utah. But he said it’s still possible.
“We can get those strong winds under easterly flow here along the Wasatch Front and we’ve had some cases where we’ve had 75 to 100 miles per hour winds. But typically it’s mid-winter when we get those situations,” he said.
Curry said if a wildfire happened in Utah during the winter, it would be difficult because most wildland firefighters are seasonal workers and the special equipment used to fight wildfires is put away for the winter. Curry said this is the case for most states.
“We don’t have a lot of wildfire capability and capacity in the winter months,” Curry said. “Aviation resources are pretty much non-existent and don’t have fire crews that are staffed.”
Curry said the aircrafts Utah uses to fight wildfires are usually provided through federal contracts and those contracts are seasonal, meaning they end in late summer/early fall. Curry said if Utah were to have a wildfire in the winter, they might have to rely on the National Guard’s helicopters to fight the fires from the air.
Curry said most people don’t think about wildfires in the winter, but he said wildfire prevention techniques are good things to remember year round. He said most of the wildfires that happen outside of the fire season are started because someone is trying to do some type of land management and the fire gets away from them, usually because of the wind.
Drought conditions increase likelihood of a wildfire outside of the fire season