Amy Roberts: Little fires everywhere
I hate the word “literally.” It’s used way too often and rarely in the right context. People like to say things like, “I’m so hungry I could literally eat my arm,” or “I was so mad I was literally fuming.” While they’re common refrains, if comments like these were literally true, a lot more people would be smoldering and missing a limb.
Despite my aversion to the word, I’m going to make an exception this week, because the state of Utah is literally burning through money right now due to the reckless and thoughtless behavior of some.
According to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, roughly 1,000 fires have burned throughout the state so far in 2020, charring close to 200,000 acres. There’s been at least one ignition every day since April 18. The vast majority of these fires — more than 700 — have been human caused. This includes last week’s Parleys Fire, which shut down I-80. Investigators believe that fire was sparked by a dump truck dragging chains. Other fires have been caused by target shooting, unattended campfires, driving on flat tires, welding outside, fireworks and other forms of carelessness.
In comparison, last summer humans caused about 380 fires in Utah, and in 2018 the number was just over 500. Two years ago, the summer of 2018 was largely considered the worst fire season on record with just over 1,300 fires and around half a million acres burned. That year, firefighting costs in Utah topped $150 million.
Given there’s another two months of fire season, it appears we’re on pace to surpass 2018 in terms of fire numbers. The cost of putting out these flames won’t be clear for several months, but it most certainly won’t be cheap. So it seems reasonable to suggest the state ought to put a bit more effort into holding the humans who unintentionally trigger these blazes accountable.
While the evidence is only anecdotal at the moment, it’s logical to assume a connection between COVID-19 and this increase in human-caused fires. More people are spending their summer vacation in the great outdoors as opposed to Disneyland. Which is wonderful news. Except it also comes with an obligation to be a good steward of land, and that idea seems to have gone up in smoke for some.
The Upper Provo Fire started July 31 and has since burned close to 500 acres in the Uintas, near Murdock Basin. Fire investigators believe it was started by a campfire that wasn’t properly extinguished. Despite this news, the high fire warnings, and the fairly obvious smoldering in the area, this week fire crews still put out three other campfires in the area after humans left them burning. So apparently camping near a place that recently went up in flames isn’t enough of a reminder to some that, “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.”
Which is why it’s time to put more effort into education, prevention and accountability. Admittedly, I have no idea how it could be administrated, but requiring campers to sign an agreement noting they understand the rules and accept liability for any fire they might cause might have better results than expecting common sense and common courtesy. It’s clear neither are as common as they should be.
While employees at the Utah Attorney General’s Office attempt to recover some money from those who start a fire, on average, it’s about $1 million each year. Which probably barely covers the salaries and administrative costs of this department in the first place. It’s not exactly a break even for taxpayers. Campers, hikers, ATV riders and anyone spending time in nature ought to be required to respect it, or literally pay the consequences for their disregard.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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