Utah's traditional fire season has ended. Here's how it went this year

Firefighters respond to the Parley's Canyon Fire as the fire rages near I-80 on Aug. 14. The fire was one of Utah's 202 human-caused wildfires after June 30, as the percent of human-caused fires dropped.

Firefighters respond to the Parley's Canyon Fire as the fire rages near I-80 on Aug. 14. The fire was one of Utah's 202 human-caused wildfires after June 30, as the percent of human-caused fires dropped. (Chopper 5, KSL-TV)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah leaders and firefighters from various agencies gathered near the mouth of City Creek Canyon in late April with a simple message as the state's drought worsened and crews observed an unprecedented amount of human-caused wildfires.

"Utah is tinder-dry right now," said Brian Steed, the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, during that event. "We don't predict that's going to get better. Please help not burn the state down."

It seems as if Utahns took that message to heart. Even before the welcomed return of rain in the state, state fire officials noticed a drop-off in human-caused fires. What was feared to be one of the worst fire seasons in Utah history turned out to be a relatively active but ultimately successful one, all things considered.

Inside the data

Utah's traditional "fire season" ended on Sunday with much better numbers than the trends indicated in April. The Utah Forestry Fire & State Lands reports there were 1,131 fires at the end of the season this year, about 3.5% above the 10-year average for Oct. 31 but a 24% decline from the same point last year. These fires burned 63,792 acres statewide.

Additionally, the division reports about 50% of wildfires this year were human-caused. It's higher than some previous years but a massive drop-off from last year and trends heading into the summer. The cost of suppressing fires this year is about $43 million, but that, too, is a significant drop-off from 2020.

Of the 1,131 fires, most were in southern or central Utah, according to data posted to the Utah Wildfire Dashboard, a joint venture by the Bureau of Land Management and Utah Forestry Fire & State Lands. The data show that Washington County led with 106 fires followed by San Juan (92), Iron (87), Uintah (83) and Kane (78) counties.

This map shows the placement of Utah's 1,131 wildfires through Oct. 31, 2021. The red dots indicate human-caused fires, the yellow indicate natural-caused fires, while blue indicates unknown cause.
This map shows the placement of Utah's 1,131 wildfires through Oct. 31, 2021. The red dots indicate human-caused fires, the yellow indicate natural-caused fires, while blue indicates unknown cause. (Photo: Utah Wildfire Board)

But as indicated by acres burned, most fires were small this year. As of Sunday, the average fire was just 56.4 acres. That's down from about 204.5 acres in 2020. Kayli Yardley, statewide prevention specialist for Utah Forestry Fire & State Lands, said firefighting response was "a huge success" and helped drive that number down. An astounding 93.2% of fires were contained under 10 acres, according to the data.

There really weren't many major fires this year, either. In a year that brought catastrophic fires in California and Oregon, Utah has had just eight fires above 1,000 acres in size; of those, only two have exceeded 10,000 acres this year to date. There were three fires that burned over 50,000 acres apiece during Utah's very busy 2018 season, which experts feared 2021 could repeat.

Ten Largest Utah Fires in 2021 (through Oct. 31)

  • Flatt: 14,366 acres in Washington County. The natural-caused fire was first reported on June 18.
  • Bear: 12,174 acres in Carbon County. The natural-caused fire was first reported on June 8.
  • Pack Creek: 8,952 acres in northern San Juan County. The human-caused fire was first reported on June 9.
  • Bennion Creek: 8,313 acres in Utah County. The natural-caused fire was first reported on June 4.
  • Little Pass: 2,186 acres in Tooele County. The human-caused fire was first reported on April 4.
  • TTU: 1,834.5 acres in Box Elder County. The human-caused fire was first reported on March 30.
  • North River: 1,751 acres in Duchesne and Uintah counties. The undetermined-cause fire was first reported on March 28.
  • Legacy: 1,471 acres in Davis County. The natural-caused fire was first reported on Sept. 10.
  • East Myton: 953.7 acres in Duchesne County. The human-caused fire was first reported on March 29.
  • East Canyon: 835 acres in Morgan County. The human-caused fire was first reported on June 8.

Source:Utah Wildfire Dashboard

What's more, all but one of the 10 largest fires to date sparked after June. But that's due to the collaboration between man and nature.

How fire fears got extinguished

Utah wildfire officials feared the worst this year based on two troubling trends that emerged ahead of the typical fire season.

First was the statewide drought. The 2020 calendar year was the driest on record in Utah, and then the state's snowpack fell short of the average. Add a below-normal spring, and firefighters across the state reported "bone-dry" conditions across landscapes, the worst they had ever encountered.

By mid-April, the state had already dealt with 227 fires that scorched over 8,000 acres. It far exceeded any previous year heading into the first season and more acres burned in the first three and a half months of 2021 than in the same time period in the previous five years combined.

Then there was another startling trend: human-caused fires. The state broke an undesired record last year with 78% of over 1,500 fires being human-caused. The percentage in 2021 reached over 95% by June, before the July holiday fireworks season.

Gov. Spencer Cox pleaded for Utahns to not launch personal fireworks while state fire officials launched an aggressive public service announcement campaign over human-caused fires.

"We want people to have a great time and to celebrate," the governor said ahead of Independence Day. "You can do that without blowing stuff up in your yard. There are other ways to celebrate."

But then two slightly unexpected trends emerged that saved Utah from disaster this year.

It seems as if the pleading and PSAs paid off throughout July. Firefighters responded to far fewer fireworks-ignited fires during the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day holidays; in fact, fires caused by human activity significantly dropped that month compared to recent years.

Human-caused fires account for just 30% of the statewide wildfires since a Utah Forestry Fire & State Lands report on June 30. Yardley says she believes Utahns saw the drought conditions and quickly associated that with fire danger, which led to this drop-off. The campaign, she said, helped in teaching residents the various things that can start a human-caused fire, such as dragging equipment on roadways, leaving a campfire unattended, target shooting near rocks and launching fireworks."

"I think this was a huge success," she said. "I want to see this continue. I would love to just keep tooting our own horn that this has been an awesome campaign. ... We've been able to reach a wider audience with the governor and lieutenant governor's help. I think that's really getting people to kind of realize and think, 'Yeah, it is my responsibility to practice fire safety.'"

Then came the rain. When the fire season began at the start of the summer, meteorologists still weren't entirely sure if rain would return this year. But the monsoons that didn't arrive in Utah last summer came back. There was even enough moisture for local, state and federal agencies to be able to lift all sorts of fire restrictions even before the Labor Day weekend.

Recent storms that have come in off the Pacific Ocean have helped continue to bring the state moisture. That's aided in the drop in human-caused fires and the frequency of fires across Utah.

"Sometimes that plays in our favor, sometimes it doesn't," Yardley said of the weather pattern changes.

Not done yet?

There aren't any active fires at the moment, according to state and federal agencies. But despite the monsoonal rain and the recent atmospheric river activity, the fire threat remains ongoing.

Yardley points out that the rain is beneficial because it dampens dry fire fuels now, but it can hurt the firefighting efforts in the long run because it grows vegetation that can dry out if rain isn't persistent. Ironically, the drought slightly helped efforts because it meant it hindered vegetation growth, she added.

All of this plays into a new mindset for firefighters across Utah and the West. For years the state had a "fire season" that lasts between mid-April and the end of October. But then, along with warmer and drier conditions in recent years, they got reports of fires in November and December. This year's fire season began just weeks into 2021 and three of the 10 largest fires so far sparked in March.

"It's not even a fire season anymore. We call it a fire year," Yardley said. "That's the mindset we need to instill in people."

It's why the division still pushes the Fire Sense message outdoors even if they've scaled back their advertisements. Yardley urges people who go outdoors to still follow the basics, such as not leaving a fire unattended or doing debris burning in dry spots.

"We'll see what next year brings, as far as weather goes, what kind of fuel is produced and see if we still get that kind of public response in terms of human-caused starts," she added. "If we continue to see a downward trend, great. I would love to see that. ... We still need to practice wildfire safety all year long. That's the key message."

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