Utah has seen a ‘huge reduction’ in human-caused wildfires
Official says it helped avoid an ‘Armageddon-like’ potential season
In June, Utah had already seen several large wildfires, and with record-dry soils, dry fuels and most of the state locked in a historic drought, conditions seemed likely only to worsen.
“The fact that we had several of them was not a good sign,” said Jason Curry, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “If you had asked wildfire folks back in June what July and August would look like, it was kind of an ‘Armageddon-like’ issue.”
But despite prime fire conditions, the number of fire starts is down 17% compared to 2020, according to a state fire agency, helped along by what Curry called a “huge reduction” in human-caused fire starts.
“Last year, we had almost record-breaking numbers of human-caused fires and we kind of anticipated similar numbers going into the 2021 season,” he said. “To see almost record-breaking low numbers in a lot of cases, it was definitely a surprise.”
Last year at this time, 75% of the wildfires that had sparked in the state had been caused by humans, according to Utah Fire Info, a state and federal interagency fire information group.
This year, the number is down to 52%.
|Utah wildfire starts through Sept. 8, 2019-2021|
|Year through Sept. 8||Wildfires||Human-caused||Percentage|
|*Source: Utah Fire Info|
The statewide trend is borne out locally, as well, according to Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer.
“We are seeing much lower human-caused fire situations this year,” he said, estimating that there have been about 50 fires in the county to date. That’s lower than normal, but not by much, he said.
Kait Webb, a prevention coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said it was a positive trend.
“We have seen, unfortunately, over the last 10 years or so, seen a slow uptick in human-caused fires becoming a more prevalent issue here in Utah,” she said.
She said the record-breaking number of people who went into the outdoors to escape the pandemic last year likely contributed to the increased number of wildfires, not just because of campfires, but also the additional cars on the road that likely led to an increased number of roadside starts.
A human-caused fire sparked along Interstate 80 last month forced the evacuation of Summit Park and other neighborhoods.
The three fire officials said the obviously dry conditions stemming from the drought likely contributed to people being safer this year, but they also each credited a new statewide fire education communication strategy.
Curry said the Utah Legislature appropriated $1.5 million over three years for the effort, which is in its first year. It includes television ads, billboards, social media campaigns and even warnings inside firewood bundles.
He said the timing of a sharp dropoff in new fire starts corresponded with the launch of the campaign early this summer.
“We were ahead of 2019 in the beginning of the season,” he said. “Once the prevention campaign started toward the end of June, the numbers went below and have been under ever since.”
Boyer said people “just got it this year” and were more conservative in dealing with potential wildfire causes like target shooting and campfires.
Curry said fireworks aren’t a leading cause of wildfire, though they do cause fires every year. He credited some vendors for shortening the time they sold fireworks as a potential contributing factor to the fewer number of human-caused fires.
He also said messaging campaigns have stressed the importance of ensuring vehicles don’t cause sparks by dragging chains or having faulty exhaust systems.
While the officials acknowledged the effect that this year’s dry conditions might have had in changing fire behavior, Webb said that some of the changes might prove to be long-lasting.
“Putting out a fire properly should be (a) very sustainable (practice),” she said. “People can easily learn (the skill) and carry it with them anytime it’s applicable.”
Curry said the reduced number of human-caused fires allowed first responders to quickly deal with natural fires, which are often caused by lightning.
“This year, 93% of all wildfires ignited were caught at 10 acres or smaller,” he said.
He added that the fewer human-caused starts reduced the overall workload for some first responders.
Curry said fire season isn’t over yet, and the forecasted hot temperatures and drying fuels mean the risk is still present. But he said the fewer human-caused fires is a trend to celebrate.
“That’s the interesting thing about fire prevention: You really never know what fire you prevented,” he said. “Can’t help but think there have been several, and it might have been that big one popping up in July or August.”
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