Officials urge common sense as fire season strikes early in Color Country – St George News

2022-05-14 22:21:59 By : Mr. Bruce Chen

ST. GEORGE — Due to drastically dry conditions, the 2022 Color Country fire season is launching early in southern Utah. Officials are urging the public to help limit fires. 

Fire officials from the Color Country region gathered Wednesday in Zion National Park to ask the public to help limit potential fires. Color Country includes all unincorporated county, state and federally administered public lands in Washington, Kane, Garfield, Iron and Beaver counties and the Arizona Strip.

There has been little to no rain in the last 90 days in southern Utah and the Arizona Strip. Ty Mizer, Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Strip fire management officer, said dry conditions combined with little to no snowpack in the mountains impact the area’s dryness. 

“It affects our fire behavior out there,” Mizer said. “Any drought relief we saw last fall has essentially been erased. We’re going to see higher fire intensities and more resistance to control on some of the wildfires.”

This winter’s lack of snowpack also points to a fire season during which the fires will be in higher elevations, Mizer said. The higher elevation fires in the timber could last a little longer than typical fires. He said this situation would cause longer exposure times for the firefighters on the ground and in the air.

Greg Bartin, Zion National Park fire management officer and Utah Parks Group agreed. 

“In Utah, we typically have fire restrictions sometime between the end of May into June,” Bartin said. “And with dry conditions the way they are right now, we expect fire restrictions to arrive in three to four weeks.” 

When visiting the parks and public lands, Bartin said fire officials notice where visitors build campfires. For example, in Zion National Park, the campfire needs to be inside a fire ring in a campground. If recreating in an area that allows campfires outside of a fire ring, he advises not to build a fire near dry leaves or brush. 

“We ask that you follow Firewise guidance, that is, when you put your campfire out completely. Don’t just leave it, but leave it cold, wet and stirred,” Bartin said. “That’s a great way to not cause an unwanted wildfire in a place where we want to go camping.”

When visiting Zion National Park, if one is not in a designated campground, then fires are completely prohibited. Visitors may use camp stoves for cooking their meals if outside a campground. 

“In Zion’s Wilderness on the plateaus, campfires are completely prohibited,” Bartin said. “We ask folks whose camp stoves in those locations to cook their meals.”

Some of the park’s partners, federal land managers for the Forest Service, the BLM and the state of Utah allow campfires and other locations that the National Park Service does not. The season came early, and all groups entered into fire restrictions as conditions dictated.

Bartin advises campers and outdoor enthusiasts to use Fire Sense. Avoid areas of dried grass where it’s windy when building a fire. Also, avoid anything that could spark a wildfire.  

“Fire sense is common sense. The trick is just using it. You already know heat or sparks plus dry grass equals a whole lot of trouble, so the next time you’re camping or shooting or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors in this great state of ours, use your brain before things get too hot to handle,” the website states.

The Four Steps of Fire Sense include:

Southern Utah is one of the busiest fire areas historically through the summer months. So all of the public and federal agencies share resources.

“Typically, on average, we pump between 1 million to 1.5 million gallons of fire retardant, and we have a lot of resources,” Skeet Houston, Dixie National Forest Service engine captain, said. “We do have a lot of fire typically on average a 10-year average Color Country dispatch runs about 350 fires a year.”

Houston said they are one of the heavier areas for fires in the country. Twenty-seven fire truck engines range from Type 3 to Type 6, and the five cooperating agencies share additional city fire engines. 

“They’re critical to our needs,” Houston said. “A lot of times, they are the closest response and the first response with fires that start inside or close to the communities, so we utilize them a lot. We really appreciate their help.”

Another fire management resource is the hand crew; the Forest Service has a Cedar City Hotshot crew with 25 people. They are also a national resource. They are based in southern Utah but are often elsewhere helping others fight fires.

Houston said in this region, the agencies also share two fire bulldozers and two water tankers regularly. They also have aircraft and an air attack platform, an airplane that flies around and keeps eyes on the forest. The plane recommends air resources and helps firefighters on the ground know where things are, like a second set of eyes, as they are attacking the fires.

Additionally, two single-engine air tankers are smaller retardant planes that assist with the predicted wildfires Houston said are expected this year. He said a Type 3 three helicopter with a 10 personnel attack crew out of St. George with the Arizona Strip and two more of the larger Type 1 helicopters are available. 

One of the large Type 1 helicopters is contracted with the Forest Service and is currently in the southwest assisting with fires. Houston said the state of Utah is planning on having a Type 1 helicopter in Utah soon. The oversized air tankers are a national resource and can be requested by the local agencies to assist. Still, those federal helicopters could be tied up with other national fires.

Keeley Yardley, communications coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry fire and state lands, said all agencies rely heavily on interagency work. 

“This is a super important piece; we wouldn’t be able to be as successful fighting wildfires across the state of Utah without interagency work,” Yardley said. “So it’s a this is a great collaboration.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

Stephanie DeGraw is an award-winning journalist. For 25 years, she engaged in journalism, broadcasting and public relations. DeGraw worked for the Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press and The City Journals. She was a reporter for a CBS television station in Twin Falls, Idaho. She graduated from Weber State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and Broadcasting.

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