Wildfire season recap: 2020 produced most human-caused fires on record in Utah, $60M in costs

Wildfire season recap: 2020 produced most human-caused fires on record in Utah, $60M in costs

(Utah Fire Info, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — There were more human-caused wildfires started in Utah during the year than any other fire season on record.

In fact, the 2020 fire season was the most active — in terms of fire starts — since at least 2012 and it also proved to be costly.

There were 1,547 wildfire reports in Utah through Sunday, according to statistics provided by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The total costs to suppress the fires reached $60 million.

The figure has since grown with a few new, small fires this week; however, it's expected to be the final update from the agency this season barring anything out of the ordinary in December.

The state had extended its closed fire season — most of its burning restrictions — from its traditional end date of Oct. 30 to the end of November, which was Monday. Officials ultimately ended that on Nov. 13 after conditions improved just enough, said Kait Webb, the statewide prevention and fire communications coordinator for the division.

In all, an estimated 316,364 acres have already been scorched, which is 3½ times more land burned than at the end of the less-active 2019 fire season. About 88% of the fires reported in 2020 were contained within 10 acres. A total of four homes and 41 nonresidential structures were destroyed by fires this year.

Of the 1,547 fires through Sunday, 1,202 fires, or 78%, were determined to be human-caused. That surpasses the previous state record of 937.

"We surpassed the previous record of human starts back in early September, so by a significant number we were breaking records on that front," Webb said.

Part of that could be tied to record recreation on public lands as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, while hot and dry conditions that lingered throughout the year didn't help either.

For instance, the Utah Division of State Parks reported record numbers of visitors during the spring and summer months at its parks, while the U.S. Drought Monitor has listed most of Utah in an "extreme" or "exceptional" drought for several months after a hot and dry year. It meant there were a lot of people on public land during a long window for high fire risk.

"It was a very unique year," Webb said. "There were higher than normal numbers of people out recreating across the state and that's something we saw outside of Utah, as well. That definitely had an influence on the number of starts that we saw this year."

The total number of fires in the state through Nov. 29 was 447 more reported fires than the same point last year and 143 more than 2018 — a year that resulted in over $100 million in firefighting costs.

This year's fire season produced the highest number of fires reported since 1,534 fires were sparked in 2012, per state data. There was even at least one new fire in the state every day between April 18 and Sept. 20.

But 2012 burned more acres of land and was slightly more expensive. About 415,000 acres burned in 2012 and costs reached close to $68.4 million. That said, only 44% of the fires in 2012 were determined to be human-caused, which is nearly half of the 2020 total.

Since fire crews were able to contain a large number of Utah's fires this year, the state didn't experience as many massive wildfires as it did during the massive 2018 fire season. The East Fork Fire, which was sparked by lightning about 13 miles north of Hanna, Duchesne County back in August, was the largest fire at 89,765 acres.

It was followed by the Canal (78,065 acres; Millard County), Rock Path (20,941 acres; Millard County), Knolls (12,584; Utah County) and Turkey Farm Road (11,993 acres; Washington County) fires.

While the large number of fires in 2020 didn't burn as many acres as some of the previous years, it still led to a spike in firefighting costs. Webb explained that every fire results in costs to cover hours worked by firefighters, as well any ground or air equipment used to fight it. It's another reason why officials urge people to use caution while they are on public lands — even after the normal end of the fire season.

"When you look at the big picture with that high number of human-caused fires this year — there's a lot of wildfires that did not need to happen. There were a huge number of wildfires in Utah this year that were preventable," she said. "Unfortunately, those accidental fires do drive up the total suppression costs significantly at the end of the year."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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