More Dogs on Main
June 29, 2012
I’ve never seen a summer like this before. It’s not even July and the conditions are more typical of a late, dry August.
A couple of nights during the week, I’ve had to get up and close the windows to block the smoke out of the house, and there has been a layer of ash over everything some mornings. The Sanpete County fire is right in the same area I was bicycling in a couple of weeks ago. Fairview, a little town at the north end of that trip, has now been evacuated because of the unpredictable fire.
There is a measuring station on the Provo River a couple of miles downstream of my house. The readings from that are available online, both current flows and historical flows. Last year, which was as freakish as this in the other extreme, the flow was just over 2,000 cubic feet per second. This year, it is 68 cfs, and a good part of that is water being released from the reservoirs in the Uintas. Once they are drained, it will be essentially dry. The 50-year average flow for this time of year is a little over 500 cfs. So how do things look with the river flowing only 13% of normal? It looks scary. The spring that supplies the drinking water is holding up OK for now, but nobody has every experienced it this dry before. We don’t know what to expect in August.
We should be ready to cut the first crop of hay next week. It’s hardly worth the cost of the fuel this year. The alfalfa came up thick and lush, and froze about three times. Somehow, that tells the plant the season is over, and it goes dormant. It just shuts down. It doesn’t matter whether it has been watered a lot or a little, it just quits growing. People who understand it a lot better than me said the solution was to mow it after the freeze. That kind of reboots everything and gets it growing again.
The grass hay didn’t freeze, but the heat messed it up, too. It set the seeds early, and once it has set the seeds, the rest of the plant decides its work is done and calls it quits. Three weeks of hot, dry wind have left it green but dry. It’s more or less mummified. We’ll end up mowing it and if we can rake it into a big enough pile there might be something there to bale. Winter range will be scarce, and ranchers will need whatever hay they can scare up this year.
Drought is not as dramatic as a hurricane or flood. It’s hard to get good video of things withering over several weeks, or forests dying out over years. That guy from the Weather Channel who is always clinging to a tree or lamppost in a hurricane never stands in a field of stunted alfalfa or withered corn and does a time lapse of himself getting a sunburn. Drought is a slow, grinding kind of event. Crops fail, forests die off as insects finish off the drought-stressed trees, but it happens slowly.
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Of course the big fear is fire. We’ve spent the last 40 years around here building the worst-case scenario homes packed on steep, heavily timbered hillsides. The newer buildings have exterior fire sprinklers that may offer some protection, and codes require more fire-resistant materials. The older areas are more exposed, but in reality, when you look at the fires in Sanpete County or Colorado, it’s clear that a sprinkler under the eaves is not much in the face of something that big.
It was probably 15 years ago that there was a fire in a canyon not far from my house. The flames were leaping up behind the ridge, and huge pillars of smoke and flame shot up whenever another pine tree burst into flames. It was several miles away, but after watching it grow for one windswept afternoon I actually packed the car and considered leaving rather than going to bed at home that night. I got lucky, and a hard rain put it out. It was good practice, though, to start making the decisions on what to take and where to go for safety.
The County Council has wisely adopted emergency ordinances banning fireworks and outdoor fires. That doesn’t mean that some idiot won’t be shooting bottle rockets in dry grass anyway, but it might help raise awareness of the risks. Things don’t look all that unusual. The grass on the ski runs is still green. But there is no moisture in it at all.
Get out and enjoy summer, and have a great Fourth of July. Just don’t do anything stupid.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column for 25 years.