SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to a prolific water year, Utah’s normal wildfire season ended Thursday with a drastic drop in the total amount of acres burned throughout the state, as compared to 2018. However, the number of fires caused by humans rose to the highest amount during the decade.
In all, 88,058 acres, or a little more than 137 square miles, were scorched by 1,050 different wildfires, according to data from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. That’s less than one-fifth of the 485,989 acres burned in 2018, and there were two fires last year — the Goose Creek and Pole Creek fires — that scorched more land than all of the 2019 fires combined.
The 2019 numbers still show the fewest acres burned in Utah since 2015, when forestry, fire & state lands reported just 10,203 acres burned. The Neck Fire that burned 19,151 acres in Iron County in September was the state’s largest wildfire.
The decline in acreage burned isn’t a big surprise considering the amount of snow and rain Utah received during winter and spring. Salt Lake City’s 2019 water year was the 10th wettest in the 145 years the National Weather Service has tracked the city’s weather, but the city experienced its ninth driest year on record in 2018. The city’s totals are traditionally indicative of the state.
The wetter year was likely the “biggest correlating factor” for fewer acres burned, said forestry, fires & state lands spokesman Jason Curry. For example, "heavy fuels" like trees were dried out by January in 2018. In 2019, rainstorms pounded most of Utah in spring.
“We had so much snowpack that lasted into late winter, into early spring, and we also had quite a bit of spring precipitation, and that just made things extremely green,” Curry said. “Once the precipitation turned off, all those heavy fuels didn’t even really have enough time to get as dry as they did last year. Even if it didn’t rain the rest of the year, they still would have had time drying out to that point.”
However, 714 of the fires, or 68%, were determined to be human-caused, which officials found to be a little alarming. That’s the highest amount of human-caused fires and the largest percent reported during the decade.
“The percentage doesn’t really tell us anything. It does tell us how busy of a lightning season we had,” Curry said, noting there were fewer thunderstorms this year in periods when lightning-caused fires usually occur in the state. “But the number of human-caused fires was higher than what I would have expected, so it is telling us that, for whatever reason, people were less cautious or spent less time thinking about prevention.”
Thankfully, about 90% of all fires were contained by crews before burning more than 10 acres. That meant only 21,622 acres, or close to 25%, were burnt from human-caused fires. The Gun Range Fire that burned 321 acres in Davis County was perhaps the most notable human-caused fire. The fire destroyed three homes and led to a brief evacuation of some 400 residents. Two people were cited in that case.
Utah launched “Spark Change” this year to educate people on how to avoid starting wildfires. Curry said his agency will continue to educate Utahns about ways to prevent fires, including a more expansive media campaign next year.
And while there was a steep decline during the normal fire year, Curry did urge caution that there has been a recent increase in fires starting past the typical fire season. There is a special concern about southern Utah, which hasn’t seen much rain since the end of spring. In fact, more than one-third of the state — all in southern Utah — entered November in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. At least 80% of the state is considered “abnormally dry.”
“We’re not really looking at fire season as a beginning and an end any more. We’re still experiencing fires throughout the state even now — not so much in northern Utah, but definitely in southern and central Utah,” Curry said. “Things are really dry down there, and we’re seeing some pretty surprising fire growth from the end of October expectations. … Just because there’s a little bit of snow up in the hills doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out that campfire or still be careful. We want people to be in that prevention mindset.”