SALT LAKE CITY — Officials are urging Utahns to use public lands responsibly as the state enters what looks to be an “above-average” season for wildfire activity, with the number of fires — particularly those caused by humans — already up this year.
There have been 237 wildfires this year as of Tuesday, according to Brian Cottam, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. At this point last year there had only been 67 — a fourfold increase.
Ninety-five percent of those were human caused, Cottam said during a Tuesday press conference addressing this year’s fire conditions. Last year, it was 67%.
“What’s really frustrating about these numbers is that none of these fires need to happen,” Cottam said. “All human-caused fires are preventable, so all of the costs, all of the expenses that we pay through our tax dollars — federal government, state government, and yes, local government — they don’t need to happen.”
A number of state agencies including leadership from the Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service gathered Tuesday afternoon for the online press conference.
Cottam said the various agencies present for the press conference are concerned by the increasing trend of human-caused wildfires.
Responders want to see a 50/50 split. Granted, the gap between human and natural wildfires should start to even out as the summer advances and more lightning storms occur, but 95% human-caused fires is “very problematic,” he said.
Officials anticipate an above-normal fire season thanks to a particularly dry April and May for at least the southern half of the state, according to Basil Newmerzhycky, lead meteorologist for Predictive Services, a branch of the Bureau of Land Management specializing in weather related to wildfires.
All human-caused fires are preventable, so all of the costs, all of the expenses that we pay through our tax dollars ... they don’t need to happen.
–Brian Cottam, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands
Newmerzhycky sifted through slides Tuesday depicting the conditions leading to responders’ alarm, which included factors like a lack of rainfall, dry conditions, high temperatures and an above-average snowpack in the winter of 2018-19, which lead fine fuels like grass or sagebrush to thrive in the spring. Those fuels are now drying up and creating dangerous conditions, he explained.
Cottam said fire responders aren’t just sitting back and waiting for a busy summer. They recognize the numbers and trends aren’t good right now, which is why Utah is embarking on a sweeping wildfire prevention campaign — the largest in the history of the state, according to Cottam.
David Whittekiend, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor, also urged the public to be responsible and emphasized fire prevention is critical this year.
“No fire is wanted on the landscape this year. We won’t be managing any fires for resource benefit,” Whittekiend said. “That doesn’t mean we will be putting firefighters at risk, but it does mean we will be taking fairly aggressive tactics to ensure fires don’t spread.”