June hasn’t even hit the halfway mark yet, but snow has already nearly vanished in the high alpine slopes of the Oquirrh and Stansbury mountains. Such is to be expected after a winter during which storms were a rarity and local snowpacks reached levels far below normal.
So a warning that appeared on the front page of last Tuesday’s edition came as no surprise. Under the headline, “Tooele County looks set for active wildfire season,” a spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands said Tooele County is “primed” for lots of wildfires this summer.
The cause behind that alarming forecast is the curing of grasses and other heavy fuels that is expected to occur this month. Heavy fuels, according to spokesman Jason Curry, is any vegetation larger than grasses, such as bushes or trees.
Further adding to the alarm is this: With little snow during the past winter, higher elevations are especially dry and in danger of wildfires, Curry said.
“From this point on, it’s just going to get busier,” he said, in reference to wildfire activity. “… We’re calling on the public to be extra careful, extra cautious.”
Curry isn’t alone in issuing such a warning. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Tooele County faces above normal potential for significant wildland fires in July and August. Above average temperatures and persistent severe drought in Tooele and Rush valleys, and moderate drought elsewhere across the county, are expected to worsen wildfire conditions.
Summer wildfires are well known in Tooele County. In recent years, we’ve had some big ones: the Patch Springs wildfire of 2013 that nearly destroyed Terra on Johnson’s Pass; the Stockton wildfire of 2014 that threatened the entire town and temporarily destroyed its water supply; the Pine Canyon wildfire of 2014 that resulted in evacuations; and the July 2016 inferno in Tooele City that destroyed 11 homes, damaged 17 and cost more than $1.3 million in damage and initial recovery costs.
We mention those four incidents to remind everyone about the sudden, destructive force wildfires possess. And while lightning caused wildfires are unpreventable, human caused ones are. That point can’t be emphasized enough. More than half of the wildfires in Utah last year were caused by human activity, Curry said.
People should work to ensure any fires are safely and completely extinguished when camping or otherwise outdoors, he said. An insufficiently extinguished fire can flare back up from coals hours after the fact and winds can carry embers from coals, sparking a blaze — and possible tragedy.
Wildfires are a fact of life in Tooele County. So too is lightning. But with fireworks season approaching fast, and area canyons and the West Desert filled every weekend with campers and recreationists, the chance of human-caused wildfires is a serious threat that should not and cannot be ignored.
With the threat clearly defined, everyone is urged to be “extra careful, extra cautious” this summer.