SALT LAKE CITY — Considering Utah's "bone-dry" conditions and the record pace of human-caused fires the state experienced heading into the traditional fire season this summer, Utah wildfire experts were pleasantly surprised with where the state is at in the final week of July.
While it's been an active fire season across the West, it seems as if — at least for now — Utah's has quieted down, with dozens of Utah firefighters assigned to fires in Idaho, Montana and Oregon instead. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Black Pine Fire near the Utah-Idaho border is the largest active fire at 563 acres, but crews were able to get 100% containment on the fire this week.
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands reports there have been 732 wildfires in Utah, including at least one new fire every day since May 17 so far this year, but 91% were extinguished before burning even 10 acres. Overall, those fires have burned a little more than 60,000 acres.
The agency stated there were 84 new starts last week, including over the Pioneer Day weekend. That's a 27% decrease from the same time period last year and on par with the 10-year average. All but two of the fires sparked last week were suppressed within the day they began.
Human-caused fires on the decline
The number of human-caused fires is sharply declining. State officials said only 13 of last week's 84 fires, or about 15%, were human-caused. That's not just a 75% drop from the same time period last year or a 66% decline from the 10-year average, but the lowest they've seen for a Pioneer Day week on record.
Kait Webb, the fire prevention coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said that continued a trend of below-average human-caused starts throughout July.
It's a welcomed drop in human-caused fires that had drawn concern from forestry experts heading into the fire season. Over 95% of Utah's fires were human-caused at the time the state launched a new awareness campaign called "Fire Sense," which aimed to educate people on the top activities that lead to human-caused fires. Utah's drought has only worsened since then, but the percentage of human-caused fires significantly declined.
A little more than two months later, state officials now say about 61% of Utah's wildfires this year are human-caused. It's still higher than previous years, but no longer on pace to shatter records as it appeared to at the start of the summer.
"We're seeing really positive trends as far as human-caused wildfires go," Webb said. "I'm sure the public has noticed, through Utah Fire Info, that the map has been quiet lately. We have not had a lot of significant fire activity, which is really positive given the high fire potential we've had. It's a trend we really need to see continue."
She pointed out that vehicles/equipment and campfires are among the top reasons for human-caused fires. Many campfire restrictions were placed across Utah this year, which has helped reduce the number of starts caused by them.
The rise of lightning-caused fires
Aside from flash flooding, the other downside to recent storms this month is a spike in lightning-caused fires. Webb said crews have been "really busy" with those this month. For instance, there were 69 naturally-caused fires last week, which is a 23% increase from last year and a 60% jump from the 10-year average.
Despite accounting for about roughly 41% of the fires in Utah this year, lightning-caused fires account for nearly two-thirds of the 60,024 acreage burned as July comes to an end. Thankfully, none of those fires have grown to the size of other lightning-caused blazes in the West this year. For example, the Bootleg Fire — one that dozens of Utah firefighters were assigned to last week — has blackened more than 413,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of buildings in Oregon.
"Firefighters across the state have done an incredible job suppressing those early and quickly," Webb said.
Not over yet
Of course, there's still plenty of time left in the fire season — a season that once ended in October but has grown longer due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions in recent years. Despite rainstorms this month, all parts of the state remain in at least a severe drought. That means there's still a risk for fires. In fact, the Great Basin Coordination Center includes the northern half of Utah in its area of high fire danger.
That's why state officials aren't letting up in their efforts even when they celebrate the declining number of human-caused fires so far this year.
Even though we've had some rain down in the southern part of the state and some cooler temperatures at times, it's still really important to continue with that wildfire prevention. ... We've got to keep hammering the message.
–Kait Webb, the fire prevention coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands
To that point, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources announced Tuesday a new partnership with Sportsman's Warehouse and other retailers to help curb fires caused by firearm-related activities, such as target shooting. The point is to educate target shooters on ways to prevent starting a fire, such as not using a backstop where rocks and vegetation are close.
The partnership came as target shooting as a fire ignition source was fresh on Utahns minds again. Even though there were just 13 human-caused fires last week, firefighters blamed target shooting for a fire sparked near Snowbasin Resort in Weber County on Saturday. The Art Nord Fire only burned about 50 acres, but it did lead to brief home evacuations shortly after the fire was reported.
There's also an effort to reduce the sizes of fires when they do start. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service workers also began clearing dead brush from some areas in the steep terrain of Salt Lake, Summit and Utah counties this month in hopes that any future fires won't be as destructive as might otherwise be.
"The public's been incredible in terms of exercising 'Fire Sense' and we need to see those behaviors continue," Webb said. "Even though we've had some rain down in the southern part of the state and some cooler temperatures at times, it's still really important to continue with that wildfire prevention. ... We've got to keep hammering the message."