SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - With conditions in Utah getting dry and
hot early in the season, federal and state agencies have postponed
some prescribed burns out of concern that they could become
uncontrollable wildfires.
Normally at this time of year, the Bureau of Land Management,
U.S. Forest Service, state of Utah and National Park Service would
be lighting fires in targeted areas to eliminate dense undergrowth
and reduce future fire danger.
However, this year fire managers are delaying the burns over
several thousand acres near Circleville, Cedar City, Panguitch and
Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks until fall.
If dry weather persists, the Forest Service may postpone
completion of an 800-acre burn near Escalante that was started this
spring.
"We don't have the right weather window right now and we
probably won't until the fall," said Donna Owens, the district
ranger for the Powell District of the Forest Service. "It got dry
and hot early."
Some past prescribed burns have gotten out of control. Last
year, two prescribed burns near Panguitch on the Dixie National
Forest combined to scorch 78,000 acres and cost $6 million to
extinguish. Known collectively as the Sanford fire, these blazes
were caused, in part, by severe drought conditions, according to a
Forest Service review of the fire published earlier this year.
One of the lessons learned was that fire managers need to pay
more attention to lack of moisture in the burn areas.
Moisture content runs low during droughts, causing fires to burn
hotter and faster.
Land managers must now look for other ways to reduce wildfire
danger. One tool is the "mechanical" removal of dense
undergrowth.
"Mechanical thinning is the politically correct term for
cutting down trees," said Bruce Fields, the fuels management
specialist at Bryce Canyon National Park. "The intention is to
reduce the small trees that will catch fire and spread into the
large trees."
But mechanical thinning isn't the way nature would take care of
the problem on its own, and fire managers say it isn't always as
effective as burning.
"In a lot of areas, fire is just the most appropriate tool,"
said Paul Briggs, a fuels program manager with the BLM in Cedar
City. "If we have to delay burning for a couple of years until we
get back into a wetter cycle, we will probably do that."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)