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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Juan Diego students learn experts use science to understand, fight rise in wildfires

Jun 30, 2022 06:47PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Headlines were bleak: “Smoke blankets the West” and “Wildfire smoke from out-of-state fires darken Utah skies.”

With weather patterns, smoke was picked up in fires from California and Oregon, producing air quality so poor that the World Air Quality index, which tracks air quality across dozens of cities globally, ranked Salt Lake City amongst the worst in the world. 

The Utah Division of Air Quality recommended everyone avoid outdoor activity as much as possible and several schools canceled their outdoor activities and sporting events.

That was summer 2021.

Recently, Utah fire experts were cautious releasing the number of wildfires as of late spring had dropped in comparison to this time last year.

As of early June 2022, there have been 177 wildfires that have burned 564 acres compared to 326 fires during the same time period last year. Both years, human-caused fires accounted for percentages in the 80s.

In 2020, a record number of 350 fires were set with 81% by humans, fire experts attribute this to the push for outdoor recreating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, with dry and changing conditions, experts caution this year’s summer could lead to a long fire season.

Recalling last summer’s gloomy and unhealthy air, Juan Diego Catholic High School recently held the “Fire & Water in the West” symposium addressing the challenges around wildfire suppression and the urban interface with climate change. U.S. Forest Service chemical engineer Daniel Jimenez and Camp Williams Military Base fire management captain Jon Slatore spoke to students and community members about the past and future of wildfires.

“Each decade there is a rise in the temperature during the fire season and our fire seasons are longer and a higher severity,” said Jimenez, who grew up in the Salt Lake Valley and now works with the fire science lab in Missoula, Montana. “It results in the change of the landscape.”

He uses several models to see how conditions change annually, mostly which identify the climate becoming drier and hotter, combined with a deficit in the vapor pressure of the atmosphere drying up the vegetation.

“We are seeing more and more fires in the landscape and a larger fire area,” he said, adding that in the future, by 2030, “We may see a drastic increase in the probability of fire.”

Jimenez said with every fire that starts, the U.S. Forest Service is “97% effective putting out within a 12-to 24-hour period,” however, it is getting more difficult as more trees in the forest compete for the same or less moisture and nutrients, leading to the environment being more suspectable to beetle attacks and ripe for fires.

While people tend to identify with the devastation of fires, there is a positive impact of forest fires.

“It’s a very positive mechanism for wildlife and the ecosystem; it’s like a cleansing and rejuvenation,” he said. “After a fire, you see immediately within a second or first spring, a flush of grasses.”

Jimenez pointed out the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fire was catastrophic with numerous dead lodgepole pines. Yet, now years later, those mature trees died and with the heat, it opened up new seeds that are abundant.

However, the increase of fires is escalating.

“We aren’t alone; it’s a worldwide issue,” he said. “Fires around the world have grown wild. We’re seeing more extreme fires. In 2016, Canada had one of its worst fire seasons ever. In 2021, Greece had massive fires. In 2020, Australia had record-breaking fires. In the last two years, California has had nine of the largest fires they’ve ever had.”

Jimenez said that at a South Carolina testing facility, fire scientists are learning how to address the issues facing “our new normal. We are studying where our highest area of risks is and where we focus the money and manpower to reduce that risk so when the fires come out of this landscape, we’re prepared for it. That is happening across the West, but it may or may not be happening fast enough in a town near you.”

While that may sound bleak, Jimenez said that may be some of the reality of it. However, there is a paradigm shift with the fire management.

“There used to be the mentality, this machismo tough guy on the ground, ‘we’re going to get it on that ridge, the fire is not going to get past this.’ Now the mentality is we’re going to pick the right ridge and we’re going to use our minds and our science and be smart about this. We have to recognize the fact that fire is a very present part of our landscape. We can be aggressive and smart about using resources and dollars, but there are also times where we just put up the white flag and let this thing rip until we get a change in weather, or it hits the right ridge. Then we can use the resources, technology and ability to engage and do it safely.”

Slatore, who used to work for Salt Lake and Logan fire departments, said that they can’t do it alone.

“The role of the public cannot be diminished,” he said. “We like to have 30 feet from the structure clear of any kind of vegetation that can burn, and we’d like 100 feet of nice open country so the likelihood of a fire carrying to a house will be lessened. If we have entire communities adopt this sort of policy, we can keep a lot of these fires from taking down the whole communities at one time.”

Meanwhile, urban crews are creating and maintaining fire breaks where communities meet the wild land. Near Camp Williams, a running path is being added to serve as a fire break.

That may help overcome the issue in 2010 when there was a machine gun fire that spread outside the base and destroyed three structures.

“Now look at that landscape. There are 200 homes that have been constructed within that fire area that was just 12 years ago; this is where our Wasatch Front looks like with so much growth. Draper has pretty much doubled in size since 1980 and the majority of it falls into the wildland urban interface,” Slatore said.

While there are other fire breaks, such as the Shoreline trail along the Wasatch, which serves for hiking and mountain biking, crews are needed to maintain those.

These wildland 20-member firefighting crews, who work 16-hour shifts with 50-pound packs on their backs, are those on the front lines “taking that fuel away from the fire to try and stop it; we rely on these guys a lot,” he said, adding that the mobile crews can get into places where mechanized equipment cannot.

By mechanized equipment, Slatore is referring to fire engines that can carry 200-800 gallons of water, but face the steep incline of the Wasatch Front. They also use bulldozers and graders as well as helicopters that can dump 50 gallons of water. Aircraft carrying 11,000 gallons of retardant also are used to fight fires and “work ahead of crews putting in the line that’s going to make it difficult for the fire to pass them,” he said.

What’s difficult is winds limit the effectiveness as well as the ability to use aircraft. Slatore said they also work on a limited budget that is stretched thin when use of a plane costs “$22,000 per hour plus $60,000 for every drop of retardant” as well as the need to pay crews who work fighting fires 78 days longer than in the 1980s.

However, location of infrastructure is something to consider when people build cabins in the forest or even when subdivisions continue to approach the forests.

“What we saw with the Boulder fire in December, and that county is very similar to us in elevation and snow, is something we’re seeing more and more common where it used to just be in California fires. We have subdivisions tucked away in the mountains with light flashing fuels all around and it’s becoming more of a common thing in the West. We’ve been seeing in Oregon the last few years and now Colorado fire, which affect roughly the same size as Cottonwood Heights. We’re talking about 1,000 homes in 100 mph winds.”

In 2020, there was an 80-acre Neff Canyon fire.

“We evacuated about 6,000 homes on that—that cost $1.9 million,” he said. “Parleys Canyon fire was 541 acres and 10,000 people were evacuated. We’re looking at a cost of $3.1 million and that was even without a loss of structure.”

Slatore said with strong winds, older power grids have started fires in Utah and Wyoming, much like California.

“Two years ago, winds came off the Wasatch at a downhill slope at 70 miles per hour knocking down trees, pretty much shut down our cities for a few days with power outages,” he said. “When that happened, the downslope wind accelerated faster and reached destructive speeds when it impacted our communities at lower elevations making it more concerning for dangerous conditions.”

To combat those instances and others, crews are moving forward with prescribed fires, choosing an area and time to start fire on the ground. 

Slatore said it’s hard to burn thousands of acres of forests with cabins and infrastructure in place because of the possible damage to them or the beauty surrounding them, but if you don’t, there could be devastating results if a wildfire does occur.

There also is a concern with prescribed burns near Salt Lake City with an international airport as well as about “how much smoke particulates and then the downwind populations and sensitive populations concerning breathing,” he said.

While working to thin the forests, the U.S. Forest Service is partnering with the timber industry in Oregon, Washington and parts of Montana and Idaho, Jimenez added.

“You don’t see large timber coming off the mill…but the way we look at it, it’s great,” he said. “We’re keeping the community thriving, we’re meeting our objective by pulling fuel off the landscape so that we can put fire back on the landscape. And the question to follow up with that is if we’re going to use prescribed burns, how much is going to be enough. It’s never going to be enough. We just can’t treat 200 million acres. We’re identifying where our fuel treatments are going to be the most effective and those are the area where we’re using funds we have and the crews we have to treat that landscape.”