USA – (KUTV) — After the driest April on record and only four-tenths of rain in May, about 90% of Utah is in a drought.
Soil temperatures are well above normal and the state’s snowpack melted earlier than usual. State fire officials are now saying they’ve already seen more than 300 wildfires, most of which are human-caused. The high country, due to the prevalence of trees damaged by bark beetles, is at risk for an active fire season.
“What we see is a fairly chaotic system,” says Brigham Young University Geography Professor Matthew Bekker.
He said that the data he has shows Utah’s climate can get really extreme.
“On average, I expect it to get drier,” says Bekker.
But, there’s a key thing there: I also expect it to get crazier, Bekker adds.
Now 90% of the state is in a drought.
Our soil temperatures are already well above normal, triggering vegetation growth which is now turning to fuel for this wildfire season.
Bekker studies tree rings. A stack of tree rings shows how frequent and severe historic droughts were — as far back as 1,000 years.
The information helps everyone from water managers to forest planners as they work to protect our resources and us.
“They have a better idea having a five hundred year, a thousand-year record, ” says Bekker, adding that long-term view is more useful to resource manager than, for example, 50 years of data.
Utah’s driest period was in the 1500s.
Bekker said our current 19-year drought rates a close second to that period in time.
A study published in Science Magazine calls the period we’re in now a “megadrought.”
Those hot and dry conditions increase the threat of wildfires.
The National Interagency Fire Center told us extended droughts are terrible for temperate climates like Utah.
Fires come earlier, get bigger, and burn hotter.
With lots of wind drying things and decreasing chances of widespread rain, they say it will be an active fire season in the high country.
Prior droughts brought swarms of bark beetles to Utah’s forest.
“If you weaken the tree with drought it’s going to be more susceptible to being killed by these beetles because they can’t launch those defenses with the same rigor,” said University of Utah Biology Professor Jack Longino.
He said drought-stressed trees attract bark beetles, who burrow in and try to lay eggs.
“If it’s a healthy tree, with a lot of good, healthy sap, it’s like hitting it with a BB,” Longino says.
“If it’s hit by twenty thousand of these beetles all at once,” he adds, “then it’s not just one BB, that’s a shotgun blast.”
A drive through the western Uinta Mountains reveals the devastation.
“These things kind of play out almost like a forest fire,” Longino says.
“For a year or so, they’ll sweep across a huge landscape, might take out a whole area of trees,” he says.
Bark beetle trees increase fire danger when their needles turn this rust color.
And when they dry out and fall to the ground, meaning one unattended campfire could light up the forest.
State fire officials told 2News that social distancing is pushing Utahns into more remote areas that don’t have reliable cell service.
That creates costly delays when you report a fire.
So what can Utahns do as we move into another hot, dry summer?
We can’t just put it on the water managers. “We can’t just put it on the climatologists. We can’t just put it on the homeowners, on the farmers, on the scientists,” says Bekker.
“I think everybody’s going to have to get involved,” he adds. “We’re going to have to think carefully about needs and wants.”
State fire officials are making their biggest push yet for fire prevention.
They say about 90 percent of this year’s wildfires are human-caused.
Agricultural burns, campfires, and equipment fires are the most common causes.
They’re asking people to completely put out their campfires, avoid exploding targets when shooting, clean out engine compartments in ATVs and RVs, and check under vehicles before dragging chains on the road.