SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Steed noticed something interesting as he drove around Cedar City last week.
A median in the southern Utah community had green grass poking through in areas next to dried vegetation that seemed to have built up of the last few years. For Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, that sight was symbolic of Utah's current fire danger.
"Even if it looks green, it can still be very flammable," he said.
The state's extreme and exceptional drought conditions are part of the reason Utah's 2021 fire season is off to such a rough start. That and the shocking rise of human-caused fires are why Utah officials launched a new statewide public education campaign, "Fire Sense," aimed to help reduce the alarming number of wildfires that have happened even before the traditional fire season.
Gov. Spencer Cox and experts from multiple fire agencies across the state joined Steed on Wednesday to unveil the program just before the Memorial Day weekend, which figures to bring many more people to the state's drying outdoors landscapes. State leaders and fire experts say they hope the program will help people avoid the top causes of human-caused fires in an effort to reduce the torrid pace of blazes even before the regular fire season begins.
"Every human-caused wildfire is a wildfire that doesn't have to happen," the governor said, standing in front of a few firetrucks sporting new Fire Sense decals parked in City Creek Canyon. "As a state, we just can't afford to keep doing things the way we're doing when it comes to the outdoors and fire danger. ... The overwhelming majority of Utah wildfires are carelessly started and 100% preventable."
Where Utah's 2021 fire season stacks up to other seasons in recent history
Experts believe 2021 has the potential to be one of the worst fire seasons in Utah's history. The pre-Memorial Day data shows exactly why they are alarmed.
There were already 227 wildfires that burned about 8,400 acres as of May, according to data provided to KSL.com by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fires and State Lands. The number of fires reported is up 164% from the same point in 2020 and well ahead of the previous five years. The next highest was 2018, which is when there were 184 fires through May 17 that year.
But what might be more alarming is the number of acres scorched already in 2021 and how many have been caused by people.
The total acreage burned already this year is more than double the figures at this point in the season of the past five years combined, according to the state data. This year's average fire, through May 17, was 37 acres, which isn't particularly large for a wildfire but is also triple the average size of the fires through the same time period of the next highest average of the past five years — 11.3 acres per fire in 2018.
It's worth noting that 2018 wound up becoming one of Utah's worst fire seasons in recent history. Fires that year burned close to 500,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes and led to numerous evacuations. Its largest fires emerged after Memorial Day.
"It's not unusual to get a 10-, 30-, 50-acre fire in some dormant brush; it is unheard of to get several fires of a couple hundred, up to a couple of thousand acres in March and April, and that's what we got," said Basil Newmerzhycky, a meteorologist for Great Basin Predictive Services.
Meanwhile, a whopping 96.5% of the fires reported through May 17 were determined to be human-caused. That continues a trend that's emerged in recent years. A record 78% of Utah's fires last year were caused by people, after the percentage of human-caused fires began to rise over the past decade. The most determined causes for such fires are equipment/vehicles, debris burning or campfires.
Why experts say Utah's situation will 'get much worse before it gets better'
What makes the 2021 fire season so different from the previous years is that the high fire danger has emerged much sooner than average. Utah typically doesn't experience droughts until the tail end of summer and it also, in the 22-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor, hasn't had exceptional drought conditions covering an area as vast as it currently does, Newmerzhycky said.
"To have this in the spring is truly exceptional because it's going to get much worse before it gets better," he said.
Experts say Utah has gone through a "bit of a reprieve" the past couple of weeks because of the snowpack and the "green-up" along the foothills. Newmerzhycky pointed to the foothills in front of him and said that while that's been nice, the "green-up" across the state has been below normal, especially in southern Utah, and is expected to end very soon.
"The fuels that we measure — how dry it is to be conducive to wildfire — they are already at mid-to-late June levels," Newmerzhycky said. "The rain and the moisture that we received last week has bought us a couple of days but starting next week probably we're going to be full-on into it."
June is already typically among the worst months for wildfires but conditions are expected to be much worse this year before they linger into the summer. It doesn't help that summer is traditionally the driest season for northern Utah.
Monsoons traditionally develop in southern Utah beginning in July but it's still unclear if those will develop this year after they were mostly absent in 2020. If those return, southern Utah's fire danger could ease up by August; however, Newmerzhycky said meteorologists are starting to become less optimistic that monsoons will be as prolific as they were originally thought.
"Even if it's a below-average monsoon, it should buy us enough to moisten up the fuels in the southern half of the state," he said. "But here in the north, north of Highway 50 along the west of the Wasatch, it's still expected to be critically dry (in August)."
If Utah's fire season does end up as bad as 2018's or worse, it would be costly. Cox said that state and federal governments could end up spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" in fire suppression costs if it gets as bad as feared.
A plea for those heading outdoors this summer
Weather is the main variable that Utah leaders and fire experts can't control when it comes to the fire season. But what can be controlled is how people interact with the outdoors.
Queue "Fire Sense" and more public awareness about the ways that human-caused fires begin. Steed said Utahns will start to see ads about the program on billboards, social media, websites and more places.
"We chose 'Fire Sense' because it's a lot like common sense — that it doesn't take that much to do a little bit more to prevent a catastrophic wildfire," he said.
Officials believe there is likely some tie between the growth in the popularity of outdoor recreation and the spike in the percentage of human-caused fires. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources released data in March that showed a spike in new people receiving hunting and fishing permits, and other state-collected data showed growth in people exploring the outdoors more for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That inexperience could lead to actions that may result in a fire.
The other theory for the rise in human-caused fires is that Utah's population is growing, and that's leading to more chances for human-caused fires.
"All of us can do better when it comes to fire sense," Steed said.
Some of the key tips to prevent fires are:
- Know the situation: Check fire restrictions ahead of starting a campfire or doing any other activity that could spark a fire. It's also important to check for red flag warnings, which are issued when hot temperatures, strong wind and low relative humidity make for conditions that can make a fire spread faster.
- Equipment: Be mindful of any surroundings and whether the equipment you are using for work, travel or recreation can start a fire. Never park on or drive over dry vegetation and also make sure that no chains are dragging from vehicles.
- Debris burning: Do not burn on windy days and make sure you have tools to suppress a fire or communication ready before burning something.
- Campfires: Keep all fires to a manageable size. Never leave a fire unattended and have enough water available when extinguishing a campfire. Use the drown, stir, and feel method when putting out a campfire.
- Target shooting: Only shoot in areas where target shooting is allowed. Use an appropriate backdrop away from rocks or vegetation. Bring a shovel and water or a fire extinguisher with you when shooting outdoors. Cox said a better option might be to shoot at indoor ranges this summer.
- Exploding targets: Never use exploding targets near dry vegetation. Exploding targets are currently banned on all Bureau of Land Management land and most other public lands.
- Fireworks: Fireworks are prohibited on all public lands. Only launch fireworks on legal dates and in areas that permit fireworks to be launched. The legal dates this summer are July 2 to July 5 and July 22 to July 25. Cox said Wednesday that no decision has been made yet if fireworks will be banned statewide this summer due to the fire conditions.
The governor said he hopes that an education campaign will help reduce fires in Utah but that may not be enough. He said the state will look to enforce laws around controlled burns and fireworks more strictly this year.
"We're going to have to have more enforcement this year," he said. "It's so dangerous out there right now. We just have to do that. People have to follow the law and be careful."
A handful of new fire restrictions in southwest Utah were announced Monday, including a ban on campfires at Zion National Park, which went into effect earlier Wednesday. That's likely just the beginning of restrictions that will be put in place if conditions don't improve.
Whether it's avoiding activities that could cause a fire or avoiding breaking the law, state officials used Wednesday's event to make a plea to residents to do what they can to prevent wildfires.
"We live in a remarkable state. It's beautiful, so please, Utah, take these precautions seriously," Steed said. "We are all in this together. Utah is tinder-dry right now. We don't predict that's going to get better. Please help not burn the state down."