Most of Utah isn't in drought. What does that mean for this summer's fire season?


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SALT LAKE CITY — After another productive winter, moderate drought lingers over less than 1% of Utah while almost a quarter of Utah — primarily its eastern section — remains "abnormally dry" as meteorological summer begins.

The good news is Utah's water situation is much better than it was during the multiyear severe drought that loomed over the West. The bad news, according to local and federal wildfire experts, is that these conditions can lead to a more active wildfire season across the Great Basin states of Utah, Idaho and Nevada.

"Last fire season was very quiet across the Great Basin, so we do have a lot of carryover in some areas that did not see that lower-elevation snowfall," said Gina Palma, a meteorologist for the Great Basin Coordination Center, in an updated seasonal fire potential briefly the agency posted on Wednesday.

The agency updated its fire potential outlook for the next four months, elevating a section of central Utah's western edge to above-normal fire risk for June and July. Northwest Utah is elevated into above-normal risk for July and August, while Utah is listed as having normal risk in September at the moment.

Palma explained that the elevated risk is generally tied to a "drier-than-normal" or "delayed" summer monsoon pattern across the region. Should that happen, there could be longer periods of above-normal risk.

She added that the risk strengthens in northwest Utah, northern Nevada and southern Idaho later in the summer because "increased fine fuel loads" such as grass, shrubs and trees could be dried out by then.

"We're expecting a busier fire season and potentially a longer fire season this year," she said.

Why this summer could be busy

Utah has — thankfully — seen a drop in fires in recent years; 2023 was one of the least active years with 808 fires that burned 18,061 acres. The total acres burned over 2021, 2022 and 2023 combined is only about one-third of the acreage burned in 2020, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The agency has credited a major reduction in human-caused fires for this decline.

But last year's record snowpack also meant more growth for fuels like grass, shrubs and trees that become a hazard when they dry out over the summer. Palma shared an experimental map projecting where the most "fine fuel yield" is expected across the West this year based on where fires didn't burn last year and where new growth is anticipated:

  • The highest estimated "fuel loading" in Utah has taken place across northern Utah and the foothills by the mountain ranges across the Wasatch, central Utah and southwest Utah regions.
  • Northern Nevada and southern Idaho also have greater fuel gains across the Great Basin.
  • Areas like the California coast, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming have some of the biggest gains in the West.

Invasive species like cheatgrass add more to the fire danger building up across most of Utah's western half, as well as northern Nevada and southern Idaho.

"That fine fuel, that continuous cheatgrass — that's actually going to carry the fuel, pre-heat those larger bushes and then catch those on fire as well," said Capt. Paul Story, of the Unified Fire Wildland Division.

This is likely why drought years aren't always when firefighters are the busiest. The spot most of the Great Basin and the West are in right now can be busier.

These maps show the fire risks for the Great Basin region over the next four months. The western section of central Utah and northwest Utah have the highest projected fire risks in the state this summer at the moment.
These maps show the fire risks for the Great Basin region over the next four months. The western section of central Utah and northwest Utah have the highest projected fire risks in the state this summer at the moment. (Photo: Great Basin Coordination Center)

Referencing drought cycles and federal land fire data in Nevada over the past two decades, Palma says the biggest fire years tend to occur either during gap years between droughts or periods where droughts start to rebuild.

"This is just for Nevada, but it's really representative of a lot of our lower-elevation areas in the Great Basin," she said. "It's not in these areas where we are deep in drought that we see well-above-average or (average) acres burned across our lower elevations."

What also hurts is the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's summer outlook favors hotter and drier than normal conditions in Utah based on an anticipated delayed or smaller monsoon season tied to shifting oceanic patterns. Palma said the monthly trends indicate there could be periods of storms that produce wind and dry lightning, which are fire concerns.

Playing it safe

Story says these fire risks are already shaping up. With hotter temperatures rolling in, he expects northern Utah's fire season could pick up as early as this month.

A view of the Salt Lake Valley from City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City on Sunday. Firefighters say green foothills can be deceiving and that fire danger is rebuilding in northern Utah.
A view of the Salt Lake Valley from City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City on Sunday. Firefighters say green foothills can be deceiving and that fire danger is rebuilding in northern Utah. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

"Just because you see a hillside of green, doesn't mean you're not seeing that underbrush. Sagebrush is next and then your pinyon-juniper," he said, adding that cheatgrass is already starting to change color.

That's why he and other fire experts say Utahns should be careful especially while recreating outdoors. Key tips from Utah's "Fire Sense" campaign include:

  • Make sure your vehicle is not dragging any chains.
  • Completely extinguish fires before leaving a campsite.
  • Find a "suitable" target shooting backdrop that is away from rocks and dry grass.
  • Keep Chinese lanterns, sky candles, fire balloons and sky lanterns away from any dry vegetation.
  • Fireworks are allowed between July 2 to July 5, and from July 22 to July 25 in approved areas.

"We have to do a better job paying attention to the smaller things," Story said.

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Intermountain WestUtah wildfiresUtahOutdoorsEnvironment
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.
Andrew Adams
Andrew Adams is an award-winning journalist and reporter for KSL-TV. For two decades, he's covered a variety of stories for KSL, including major crime, politics and sports.

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