Fire officials focused on preventing fires in extreme heat, drought call Washington County a ‘tinderbox’

ST. GEORGE — With Southern Utah in the midst of unprecedented drought conditions, wildfire risk is at an all-time high, and any careless use of fire, outdoor equipment or fireworks in a prohibited area can ignite a small fire that can quickly become a massive blaze.

2019 file photo of smoke from the Skull Flat Wildfire burning five miles east of Beaver, Utah, June 27, 2019 | Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

With severe drought conditions gripping Southern Utah as the wildfire season looms directly ahead, many are bracing for what could be one of the most severe heat waves of the year.

Moreover, amid extreme drought conditions came water restrictions that were implemented across much of Washington and Iron counties, potentially altering the landscape across the region as a severe heat wave has descended upon Southern Utah.

Add to that, the Beehive state is also experiencing one of the driest years on record; and if predictions hold, that combination could lead to a fire season that could burn an unprecedented amount of land.

The extreme conditions may be a grim preview of challenging months to come – where high temperatures, wind speed, a lack of precipitation and low relative humidity can set the stage for any fire to spread to the point it is beyond control.

Utah State Fire Marshal Todd Hohbein told St. George News that fire officials are very concerned with this year’s fire season, saying it could be disastrous for the state. With low precipitation levels and no rain in sight, “this is no time to fool around with fireworks, or any careless use of fire,” he said.

“Washington County is a tinderbox right now,” he said.

Hohbein said that fireworks pose the most significant danger right now, and despite active fireworks restrictions, there will still be those who “feel the need to set them off in their driveway or in their backyard.”

And it’s not about one driveway or one backyard, he said.

“It’s about your neighbor’s yard, their home and their neighbor’s home – they can all be placed at risk.”

The Diagonal Street Fire reported in May is an example of how quickly a fire can spread to multiple homes, he said, as the blaze rapidly spread, to the point that three homes were involved in flames within 45 minutes of it starting. The cause of that fire is still under investigation, St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker told St. George News on Monday.

Fire danger and drought

2020 file photo of a plane dropping retardant on a wildfire in Southern Utah, July 15, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Carla Hunt, St. George News

High temperatures and low humidity are two essential factors that contribute to a spike in fire risk and activity, and both affect fire behavior from ignition to its spread.

There are also a number of factors that come into play during a heat wave that can amplify drought and heat conditions, and can even create a phenomena where each makes the other worse, according to NASA.

Under normal conditions, the heat from the sun is offset by the process of evaporative cooling, where surface water or moisture from vegetation creates the “swamp cooler” effect – where it cools the heat from the sun.

Heat waves, on the other hand, often form in concert with drought conditions – when the land is dried out and the vegetation wilted – which means the cooling effect from the moisture that would normally keep the outside temperature in check is no longer there, which can mean all the heat from the sun goes into rising temperatures.

Moreover, since the dry conditions are incapable of having a cooling effect on outside temperatures, there is nothing to abate the heat from the sun. So as temperatures become hotter, the conditions become drier, which causes the heat to continue to rise, and the cycle goes on.

Put simply, Hohbein said, the hotter the temperature the more wood or other organic materials dry out, making it easier to ignite.

“A little wind and a small fire can become a humongous fire very quickly,” he said.

Complicating matters further, he said, is the significant growth in terms of not only population but  also visitor numbers in Southern Utah, as anyone new to the area may not be aware of how incredibly dry it is or how quickly a fire can ignite and spread.

So far this year, there have been 356 wildfires reported statewide, a slight drop from the 392 in 2020. However, in 2019 there were only 111 fires, and an average of 224 fires has been reported during the same time period over the last 10 years, according to recent statistics provided by Kaitlyn Webb with the Utah Division of Forestry and State Lands.

Just since last week, there have been 30 new fires reported across the state.

Both Washington and Iron counties have had 32 fires so far, placing them in second and third place on the list of busiest counties so far in Utah.

Of the 35,000 acres burned across Utah, 19,000 burned from human-caused fires, and more than 80% of them have been caught at 10 acres or less.

2020 file photo of firefighters responding to a vehicle fire near Gunlock State Park, Gunlock, Utah, Dec. 31, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Northwest Fire District, St. George News

Fire safety

The St. George Fire Department responds to multiple car fires during the summer months, and with the critical conditions in place currently, Stoker said that keeping up with vehicle maintenance can reduce the risk of fire.

A blown tire is one of the primary ignition sources in a car fire, Stoker said, which typically occurs when the steel belt inside of the tire is exposed from wear and then rolls along the asphalt where it can spark and then ignite. The flames spread quickly through the rubber that has already reached several hundred degrees by then, and from there, the entire vehicle can become engulfed in flames within minutes.

A car overheating is also a major factor in many of the vehicle fires they respond to, he said. Regular safety checks and maintenance can reduce the risk of losing a vehicle in a fire.

Stoker also said when pulling a trailer, it is important to make sure the tow chains are properly placed and not left dragging across the roadway, as many fires each year are started from the sparks of a dragging chain.

It is also important to conduct a safety check inside of the home, he said, and extension cords can be a primary ignition source in many house fires. These cords are designed for temporary use only, he said, and they should be checked to make sure they are not worn through or have wear marks that can leave wiring exposed.

Creating a defensible space around the home of at least 100 feet can also protect it from a wild fire.

Taking extra care while using any outdoor machinery or equipment is also recommended, he said, and anyone working with tools outside should always have a water source, either a garden hose or bucket of water, within reach so if a fire does start, it can be extinguished quickly before it has the chance to spread.

Drought conditions in the west 

Drought conditions across the region are severe.

Map showing extreme drought conditions expected to persist throughout the western portion of the United States, including Utah, depicted in red, through July 2021 | Image courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center, St. George News

In fact, according to a potential outlook map released this month, these drought conditions have intensified and are now present in more than 87% of the western United States – and over half of the west is in extreme drought conditions – including the entire state of Utah.

Those conditions are expected to continue at least through July. In August, the situation in Southern Utah is expected to improve with the coming of the monsoon season, while the northern part of the state remains in the red zone.

Drought conditions were prompted when the snowpack across most of the West dropped to well below average values, and the area then experienced above-average temperatures – a combination that “dwindled an already meager snowpack” across the Sierras and much of the west by May, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

Stoker said drought conditions in Southern Utah are compounding the fire risk across the region, adding that the moisture content in the vegetation “is extremely low.”

Additionally, he said, many of the fuels that feed a fire are already pre-heated because of extreme temperatures, and if combined with high winds, even a small fire starts to grow faster and spread farther.

The massive costs associated with heat waves, droughts and wildfires 

Heat waves, droughts and wildfires are among the costliest and most life-threatening disasters in the United States and across the globe, according to PreventionWeb. 

Last year was a record year for wildfires as multiple massive blazes burned across the western United States – leaving nearly 9 million acres – or about 75% more area than expected during an average year, burned and scorched.

2020 file photo of smoke rolling into Southern Utah, the cause is the Lake Fire burning in Lake Hughes, California, August, 2020 | Image courtesy of InciWeb, St. George News

Those fires also came at an unimaginable cost, with 37 people killed, tens of thousands more displaced, and poor air quality that resulted in health issues for millions of Americans.

There were also indirect impacts, such as a disruption of numerous supply chains, leaving experts to estimate the total costs to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The record-breaking fire season of 2020, like many seasons in the past 20 years or so, took place in conjunction with a “once-in-millennium” drought and record heat reported across much of the southwest United States.

Researchers say it is the interaction between droughts, wildfires and heat waves that contribute to the rate of occurrence for each and can have a direct impact on the magnitude and the level of disruption left in the wake of such disasters.

For example: Tens of millions of trees dried out during the drought in California that occurred between 2012-2016, which left a massive load of fuel available for wildfires.

From there, back-to-back heat waves that were unusually strong followed that also brought about a number of dry spells – which also spelled disaster when the August Complex fire got going. That fire burned more than 1.4 million acres – roughly the size of Delaware – and that was only one of several massive wildland fires burning across the Golden State at the time.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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