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STOCKTON, Tooele County — More than two dozen new fires have sparked in Utah since Friday, scorching more than 13,000 acres, or twice the number of acres that had burned prior to the weekend.
But what Gov. Spencer Cox found even more alarming is that 23 of the 26 new fire starts between Friday and Sunday were caused by human activity, including the Halfway Hill Fire that has burned more than 10,000 acres in Millard County and the Jacob City Fire, which the governor stood in front of Monday afternoon.
"Fortunately, (with) the great work of our incredible firefighters, we were able to get most of those out, but we still have (six) that are still burning," he said, as smoke from the fire billowed from the mountains behind him.
"This weekend, we saw fires that were threatening homes, neighborhoods were evacuated and ashes fells from the sky," he added. "With temperatures continuing to hover in the triple digits all week and no rain in sight, we desperately need every Utahn to act responsibly when it comes to fire prevention. ... The most important fire is the one you don't start."
The active weekend prompted the Great Basin Coordination Center to move Utah into a fire preparedness level 3, meaning it's in need of more fire suppression resources. It also inspired Cox, Utah land managers and firefighters to remind Utahns how to recreate responsibly to avoid what they call preventable wildfires.
Utah had a relatively quiet fire season heading into the weekend. There were 385 fires in the state that had burned a total of 6,373 acres, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands reported on Wednesday.
But that's not representative of Utah's conditions; more than four-fifths of the state is currently in at least extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Jamie Barnes, the state forester and the division's director, said Monday that Utah's vegetation is "critically dry" at the moment, noting that even "the slightest thing" can spark a new wildfire.
For example, experts believe the Halfway Hill Fire ignited from a campfire; four people were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of abandoning a fire that caused property damage greater than or equal to $1,000. The fire has since burned about 10,141 acres and was 0% contained, as of Monday afternoon.
Cox said Monday that he's hopeful that monsoonal moisture will move its way over more of Utah this month and help reduce some of the state's fire risk, but there aren't any guarantees as to how much rain certain areas will receive during the summer months.
He said every new fire can strain federal resources, especially because there are only so many teams available to fight fires and all of the West is at risk for wildfires. Barnes added that the fires can put a strain on state and local resources, too. They say this can result in not having other firefighters or equipment to fight all the fires raging in the region.
Human causes account for about two-thirds of all new fire starts this season.
"With the number of fires we're seeing, it's crucial that Utahns act now," Barnes said as a helicopter buzzed overhead toward the Jacob City Fire. "We're asking all Utahns to be diligent and help prevent human-caused wildfires. We're asking Utahns to use their fire sense. You have the ability to make a difference."
So, what do they recommend?
- Check for campfire restrictions. Cox pointed out that most Utah regions currently have campfire bans; however, in places where campfires are legal, people are encouraged to make sure their fire is completely out before leaving.
- Secure any chains before driving a vehicle. Dragging chains can spark new fires; this is what sparked a few of the fires over the weekend
- Don't park a hot car or RV on dry grass. This is believed to be the cause of the Sardine Canyon Fire in Cache County this weekend.
- Don't target shoot outdoors on hot or windy days.
- Use caution when using aerial fireworks and only launch them in approved areas at approved times. While fireworks are illegal again until July 22, they are believed to be the cause of the Deuel Creek Fire above Centerville during the July 4 weekend. Cox said Monday that he recommends that Utahns not launch personal fireworks at all for the Pioneer Day holiday weekend because of the current conditions.
More fire safety tips can be found online at utahfiresense.org.