Utah fire danger high, but better than last year

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah land officials say this year’s wildfire season will be better than last year, but fire danger will still be high, and the state likely will see some large fires.

Representatives from state and local agencies gave a forecast for this summer’s fire season Thursday.

Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesman Jason Curry said conditions won’t be as hot and dry as last year, but much of the state has moderate to severe drought, and extreme drought conditions have been recorded on the western flank of Tooele County.

Utah has seen less precipitation than normal, but temperatures also have been below-normal, preserving the snowpack the state did receive. That snow sticking around longer has postponed vegetation from drying out, which means the fire season will start later in the year than it did in 2012.

“There’s not a lot of snow up there as compared to normal levels, but we’re sitting a whole lot better than we were last year at this time,” Curry said. Last year, there was much less snow in March and April, kicking off the fire season with an “extremely early and vicious start.”

Curry said it’s too early to predict whether this year’s improved outlook will continue into the thick of the fire season in July and August.

Very dry weather left Utah extremely volatile last year, with wildfires scorching hundreds of thousands of acres across the state and costing more than $50 million to fight.

While this year’s forecast has improved, the danger is still high and officials are cautioning that most of the early fires tend to be human-caused.

“People can make the difference between a catastrophe and a good time out there in the woods or wherever they are,” Curry said.

Last month, Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation allowing the state forester to temporarily restrict activities such as target shooting, smoking and other activities on state lands when there’s a high threat of wildfire, as long as the sheriff of any affected county agrees to the restriction.

Target shooters started a small percentage of Utah’s fires last year, but one of those was a 5,507-acre blaze near Saratoga Springs in June that caused thousands to flee homes and cost $2.1 million to battle.

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