Utah’s drought conditions and landscape raise questions about fire risk

The Marshall Fire engulfs a home in Louisville, Colorado on Dec. 30, 2021, as crews work through the night to battle the blaze, destroying more than 500 homes in Boulder County. With dry conditions and urban development, something similar to the ember-fueled Boulder Fire could happen in Provo if it were dry for an extended period with strong winds, according to Sam St. Clair, professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

Second in a series on drought. The first part examines how Utah’s drought affects snow levels.

Urban and wildfires in Provo can be exacerbated by drought conditions, raising questions about whether something like the recent Boulder Fire could happen in Utah County.

In Boulder, the fires were sparked by high winds and dry fuel conditions, said BYU plant and wildlife science professor Sam St. Clair. “It just hasn’t been very wet there. And then with these strong winds, it creates really favorable conditions for fire.

These strong winds fanned intense grass and brush fires and blew them towards cities, causing an “urban firestorm”. The embers helped spread the fire as they went from house to house, according to NASA Earth Observatory.

As of Jan. 18, 31.8% of Utah is in extreme drought with 93.8% in severe drought, according to the Utah Drought Monitor. Last month, December 21, 2021, conditions were worse with 79.1% of the state in extreme drought conditions.

An above-average snowpack has helped ease drought conditions, but Utah is not yet clear.

“urban forest”

According to St. Clair, with dry conditions and urban development, something similar to the ember-fueled Boulder Fire could occur in Provo if it was dry for an extended period with strong winds.

The question arises as to whether there is enough fuel and fuel continuity to carry the fires through the urban landscapes of the area. “We live in an urban forest that’s pretty, pretty big,” St. Clair said. “There’s a lot of fuel in the valley.”

Provo Power’s Forestry Division manages the city’s urban forest, overseeing the more than 30,000 trees that grow under power lines and facilities according to division website. These include trees in parks and walkways, or sections of land between sidewalks and the curb.

The overall goal of the boardwalk strip is to have tree-lined streets, said Chaz Addis, Provo City Forester. These are seen in historic neighborhoods like Maeser, Joaquin and Timp.

However, having urban forests does not mean Provo will necessarily have a large urban fire, Addis said.

“I think the benefit of having urban forests far outweighs the responsibility of having trees in the urban environment,” Addis said.

Ember transport

Fires in urban areas don’t just spread by passing between trees, but can also spread by carrying embers, St. Clair said.

Embers, which are small pieces of burning wood and charcoal, are the leading cause of homes igniting during wildfires, the Utah State University Forest Extension.

Burning fuel can eject those embers, St. Clair said. If there are high winds, they can be carried long distances and start fires when they land.

“A lot of times houses burn down because embers land on the roofs and ignite them that way,” he said. “So that’s a game-changer.”

While St. Clair doesn’t think the entire valley will burn, he said there could be a large fire in the urban area.

“The conditions are perfect; it was really dry for a long time and there were really strong winds,” St. Clair said.

Bush fires

Illegal fireworks caused a brush fire on June 21, 2021 and consumed 1/2 acre of land on 4410 Mile High Drive in Provo. Bushfires occur every summer in Provo, said Lynn Schofield, fire marshal with Provo Fire & Rescue. (Decker Westenburg)

“Luckily people are pretty cautious, so we don’t have a ton of fires in Provo,” said Lynn Schofield, fire marshal at Provo Fire & Rescue.

Bushfires, however, happen every summer here, Schofield said. These fires ignite in fields and foothills, or on smaller hills that rise into the mountains. Common areas of these fires are along the East Bank and include Y Mountain, Rock Canyon and Slate Canyon.

According to National Integrated Drought Information System, drought can dry out fuels for wildfires, making these materials more flammable. Drought also increases the likelihood of ignition and the rate at which fire spreads. Combustibles include grasses, trees, and anything that can be burned and can spread fire.

Schofield said Provo Fire & Rescue focuses on fuel mitigation and fire safety in the foothills of the city, clearing any underbrush that could catch fire and trying to reduce the risk.

“We were very lucky that we haven’t burned anything on top of the mountain for a long time,” he said.

Drought and weather play a big role in wildfires, Schofield said, adding the state will need to maintain its recent above-average snowpack for the next five years.

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