A rash of fires across the west desert over the weekend have kept fire crews busy and the skies full of smoke.
The largest fire, the Dallas Canyon fire, was started by lightning around 4 p.m. Friday. The fire began south of the Aragonite exit on I-80 in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area. So far the fire has charred 43,610 acres of junipers, sage brush and grass along the hillsides — critical habitat for wild horses, mule deer herds, and raptors, among other animals (see related story).
Jeffrey Kline, fire management officer for the BLM’s West Desert District, said currently, most roads on the eastern and western slopes of the Cedar Mountains, including Hastings Pass, are closed.
Kline said because the terrain is very difficult, crews from as far as California have come to assist in firefighting efforts. Nine crews consisting of 232 firefighters, two helicopters, eight water tenders and one fire engine are collectively working to slow the fire.
“We’ve tried to tap into the best, closest resources available,” Kline said. “We’ve enlisted the help of hot shot crews, hand crews, smoke jumpers from Boise — because they are able to access the difficult terrain — helicopters and fixed-wing planes with retardant.”
As of Tuesday morning, the fire was only 60 percent contained and could continue to grow, Kline said. Crews were successful in creating control lines in the Hastings Pass area and doing burnout operations on the east and west bench roads to prevent the fire from affecting any other roads.
“This fire spread so fast primarily because of the drought,” Kline said. “Also, last year was a wet spring so it grew a lot of annual grasses and cheat grass. That grass did not burn last year, but it carried over this year because of the low snowpack. The snowpack normally mats it down, so we’re dealing with not only this year’s crop, but last year’s crop too.”
Several smaller blazes have also sparked up around the county.
The Slate Jack fire burned four miles northeast of Eureka and charred 193 acres in Tooele, Utah and Juab counties. The lightning-caused fire wasn’t noticed until Saturday around 8 p.m., Kline said.
“We didn’t notice it until Saturday, but I think it probably started on Friday when all the other fires started,” he said. “It was discovered by crews that had just left another fire in Utah County. They started on it right away and were able to get it contained quickly.”
Kline said the fire blazed through grass, brush and junipers, and was declared to be at 100 percent containment by Monday evening.
The Ibapah fire began Sunday around 1:30 p.m. So far, the cause of the fire is unknown, however Kline said it’s likely this fire was caused by lightning as well.
“It’s still under investigation because it was so close to town,” he said.
The fire has burnt about 1,800 acres just east of Ibapah and was 95 percent contained as of Tuesday morning. Kline said some power lines, eight homes and two commercial properties were threatened on Sunday. Evacuations were voluntary, and firefighters were able to keep the fire from getting close enough to cause mandatory evacuations.
“Firefighters were able to wet the fuel and made a good push to keep the fire from jumping the road into town,” he said.
Kline said mostly engine crews from Ely, Nev., and Ibapah are working on this fire. There are also two single-engine air tankers and one heavy air tanker working on the fire. There are about 32 firefighters on scene.
Another smaller fire, dubbed the Radio Tower fire, was discovered on Friday around 12:30 p.m. and contained by Sunday, Kline said.
“That fire has been 100 percent contained,” he said. “It was only about 15 acres and was started by lightning too. We had to contain and demobilize that one quickly because the Dallas Canyon fire is our biggest concern.”
The radio tower, which is located at Grassy Mountain just north of I-80 and northwest of Delle, was not actually threatened, Kline said.
“The Radio Tower fire was initially named that because of the perspective of the people who saw the fire,” he said. “It looked like it was being threatened, but it wasn’t.”
The Clean Harbors facility at Grassy Mountain was also not threatened.
Another fire, called the Tracks fire, was started by a car near the railroad tracks at the Clive exit off I-80. Kline said he doesn’t know how many acres the fire burned, but it was discovered around 8:40 a.m. Sunday and was fully controlled later that day.
“I know it was rather small,” he said. “BLM investigators and the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office are both investigating it to see if it was intentional. It happened early enough in the day that we could get it taken care of quickly.”
Kline said two fire trucks headed to the Dallas Canyon fire passed by the area right after the fire started and stopped to put it out. A helicopter en route to the Dallas Canyon fire was also able to assist.
“It’s been dry enough that all it takes is a little bit of lightning,” Kline said.
Because of the many fires, air quality has been degraded somewhat, however, no yellow or red alert days were issued over the weekend, according the Division of Air Quality. Both yesterday and today were green days. Green days are also predicted for Wednesday and Thursday.
Bryce Bird, director of the DAQ, said the highest volume of PM 2.5 — high fine-particle pollution that is the largest cause of concern when it comes to wildfires — was seen Sunday night when the one-hour standard reached 46 micrograms per cubic meter.
The 24-hour national air quality standard for PM 2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. This threshold is rarely exceeded during the summer, though it is often exceeded during the winter, particularly in the Salt Lake Valley. The 24-hour standard did not exceed 12.8 micrograms per cubic meter over the weekend.
“I was driving into Utah from Idaho last night, and you could see where the [Dallas Canyon] fire was even at the Idaho border. The smoke is drifting,” Bird said. “However, once you get removed from the fire, concentrations are much lower. In Brigham City, which is where I saw smoke, they only had concentrations of 15 to 18 micrograms per cubic meter.”
Bird said it’s important for the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses to avoid being outside as much as possible.
“Avoid exposure to wildfire smoke. It’s something that’s been a problem all summer and it will continue,” he said. “We encourage people to take precautions to reduce human-caused fires, because the smoke is impacting people’s lungs.”