SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Those who manage Utah’s response to wildfires are concerned about our current fire conditions. They said our record winter is turning into late summer high fire danger. They explain how the danger is now emerging, in this edition of Behind the Badge.

Combing through Utah’s west desert, its scratchy sagebrush and yellowing cheat grass are now a tinderbox waiting to explode.    

“That’s where we’re going to see some fast-moving fires,” said Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands State Fire Management Officer Brett Ostler.

Ostler said Utah’s record-breaking winter, doused the state with snow, which led to widespread wild plants, now ripe to fuel massive fires.

“The moisture that we had, plus the heavy rains we received in the spring keep that fuel moisture high and now it’s just drying out to the point where it will burn,” said Ostler.

He said until now this year’s water in the plants kept the fire risk at bay, but now it’s so hot outside the drying plants are creating the perfect conditions for wildfires to thrive, and it’s already started. Several smaller wildfires, like the Bettridge Fire outside Wendover, have broken out in the last several days. Ostler said the west desert is prime for more of them.

“Within the next two weeks, you’re going to start to see these fires move at a pace where we may not be able to catch them in the initial attack,” said Ostler.

Behind the scenes, monitoring plant water counts, state fire experts believe the moisture left in mountains puts them less at risk, but in places where they are expecting fires, how quickly they spread, largely depends on how much lightning we receive in typically late summer storms, or how careless Utahns get with things like campfires.

“One of the big problems that we’re seeing right now is there are people still leaving their campfires when they leave camp, and so that’s something that we need to curb,” Ostler said.  

If we can reduce the number of human-caused fires sure to burn our desert shrubs and grasses, those who monitor and manage Utah’s response believe it could offset the high fire concerns.

Some of the shrubs they’re watching are the sagebrush up in Rich County. They said that based on what they see up there they judge what the rest of the state is doing. They report the sagebrush has dried out enough, it’s ready to burn.