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Using prescribed burns to prevent catastrophic wildfires in Utah

Posted at 5:54 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 19:54:20-04

SALT LAKE CITY — During the fall and winter months, there’s a collaborative effort from local, state, and federal agencies to conduct fuels mitigation projects in hopes of preventing wildfires.

“For every prescribed fire that we conduct is hopefully less acres of a catastrophic wildfire we can’t stop,” said Chris Delaney, State Fire Management Officer for Bureau of Land Management Utah. “We treat preventatively thru fuels management more acres than we burn annually from wildfires in Utah.”

BLM Utah treats roughly 70,000 acres in the state, but only a small percentage of the fuels work involves fire.

“We use it as a tool by using it at those lower intensities and we’re just trying to get the benefit that we would get from natural fire without the consequences of it,” said Nathan Shinkle, Acting Fuels Specialist for Bureau of Land Management Utah.

Read - Utah prepares for ongoing drought and a rough fire season

BLM Utah is the primary land administrator in the state overseeing more than 22.8 million acres of land which equates to approximately 42 percent of the land area.

The U.S. Forest Service has treated roughly 41,000 acres in Utah since fall of 2021 with plans of treating nearly 50,000 acres this year.

“The attempt with fuels management is to create positive outcomes and limit the number of negative effects that wildfires can cause,” said Ben Newburn, Director of Fire & Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Region. “It’s done under careful set of plans that takes into account a number of variables like whether fuel and vegetation on the land and other values that might be associated with the area.”

According to Newburn, the Forest Service uses technology to map specific areas to determine which areas need fuels treatment and when it should be done.

Read - Storm brings relief, but still not enough to help Utah drought

Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands works with counties and private landowners to choose which areas to treat.

“If we protect that one community, you know it might not be this that this prescribed burn that impacts an area but it might be a couple years from now where you know we’re able to hold on that particular that line or that burn,” said Kayli Yardley, Prevention and Fire Communications Coordinator for Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “Maybe there will be another catastrophic wildfire that happens and it will hit into where we’ve already done this work.”

Watershed areas and communities are of higher priority when it comes to fuel reduction work. The Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, a partnership which works to improve high priority watersheds indicates that nearly 260 projects are in the works right now with another 150 already proposed for future work.

Fuel work is also completed in some areas known for popular recreation, such as Utah’s National Parks.

In 2021, the National Park Service treated more than 1,000 acres in national park sites and are on track to do more the same in 2022.