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Utah’s 2021 fire season could cost hundreds of millions to fight and burn a record amount of land if predictions hold.
This year is one of the driest years on record and over 90 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought. Gov. Spencer Cox said 2021’s fire season, which normally runs from June 1 to to Oct. 31, has the potential to be one of the worst ever seen.
What to expect this year
Philip Dennison, chair of the geography department at the University of Utah, has done extensive research on wildfires and agreed the state is “primed for a bad fire season due to the continuing extreme drought.”
“The drought has put a lot of stress on vegetation, drying it out and in some cases killing it, both of which make fire more likely to burn,” Dennison wrote in an email.
The Utah Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal, which is run by the state, shows that counties with more vegetation have an increased threat of wildfires, including Washington County near New Harmony, Iron County near Cedar City, Western Beaver County and eastern Juab County.
“I’m most concerned about Utah’s forests this summer. Utah’s rangelands burn in most years, but our shrublands and forests burn less frequently,” Dennison wrote. “Fires are relatively rare at higher elevation in the Wasatch, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a significant fire in the Wasatch this summer.”
The risk assessment portal provides an option for individuals to input their location and determine the threat level for their specific location. The portal also lists guidelines on precaution and preparation for individuals evaluating their risk of wildfire exposure.
“People start most fires in Utah, so if there’s anything we can do to minimize wildfire impacts this summer, it’s reduce accidental ignitions,” Dennison wrote. “Last year we saw a big increase in ignitions, probably due [to] people getting outside during COVID restrictions. I’m hoping Utahns will keep the drought in mind and we can reverse that trend this year.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a live smoke model to provide information on air quality and visibility issues caused by wildfires, which can be viewed here.
Current blazes can be viewed at the map below provided by Utah Fire Info.
Preparing for Wildfires
One of the main areas of danger for wildfires are “wildland-urban interfaces,” according to the Utah Division of Fire, Forestry and Lands. These areas are where human developments meet undeveloped wildland and pose “tremendous risks to life, property, and infrastructure.” To combat these dangers, the National Wildlife Protection Association provides a checklist for homeowners in preparing for wildfires.
According to the association, research “point[s] to embers and small flames as the main way that the majority of homes ignite in wildfires,” with studies showing that homes “ignite due to the condition of the home and everything around it, up to 200′ from the foundation.”
This Home Ignition Zone is split up into three areas — the immediate zone, which lies zero to five feet from the home itself; the intermediate zone, which is from 5 to 30 feet from the furthest attached point from the home; and the extended zone, which is from 30 to 100 feet outside of the home.
The immediate zone is the most important zone to take action in, according to the association, since it is most vulnerable to embers. Recommendations for this zone include the following:
Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.
Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration.
Reduce embers that could pass through vents in the eaves by installing 1/8 inch metal mesh screening.
Clean debris from exterior attic vents and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening to reduce embers.
Repair or replace damaged or loose window screens and any broken windows Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and - needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.
Landscaping is the main portion of recommendations for both the intermediate and exterior zone of homes. The recommendations for the intermediate zone include the following:
Clear vegetation from under large stationary propane tanks.
Create fuel breaks with driveways, walkways/paths, patios, and decks.
Keep lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of four inches.
Remove ladder fuels (vegetation under trees) so a surface fire cannot reach the crowns. Prune trees up to six to ten feet from the ground; for shorter trees do not exceed 1/3 of the overall tree height.
Space apart trees to have a minimum of eighteen feet between crowns with the distance increasing with the percentage of slope.
Tree placement should be planned to ensure the mature canopy is no closer than ten feet to the edge of the structure.
Tree and shrubs in this zone should be limited to small clusters of a few each to break up the continuity of the vegetation across the landscape.
The goal for the extended zone, according to the association, is to disrupt a fire’s path with actions like removing “heavy accumulations of ground litter/debris, dead plant and tree material, and small conifers growing between mature trees.”
When a Wildfire Strikes
The Utah Office of Emergency Management urges Utahns to have a plan in place on if a wildfire is to strike, including evacuation methods and having a “disaster supply kit” ready at all times including what individuals would need for 3-5 days. A full list of suggested items can be found at Utah.gov’s Be Ready Utah page.
Wade Mathews, public information officer for the Utah Office of Emergency Management, also encourages individuals to make a list of personal items to take with them in case they are forced to evacuate, in addition to their disaster supply kit. This list could include important documents, irreplaceable items that someone wouldn’t want to be without, family heirlooms and photo albums, among other things.
“Prioritize those [items], the most important at the top, because depending on how much time you have to evacuate, you may not be able to get to them all,” Mathews said. “Write down on that list where you keep each of those items, and then keep that list in an empty container… so in an evacuation order, you can grab those items, grab that list inside that container, put those items in the container and take that with you when you’re evacuating.”
In most cases evacuation orders will come from local authorities. Notifications for these orders could be made through door-to-door announcements, telephone calls, the Emergency Alert System on television and radios, wireless emergency alerts or social media, so Mathews encourages Utahns to get acquainted with their local warning systems.
“I think in the cases of these wildfires that we’re seeing around the state right now, a lot of these are more remote areas,” Mathews said. “Secondary home areas, cabins, campgrounds, recreation areas like that. They would most likely be hearing some of those word of mouth, door to door notifications.”
It’s also important to follow instructions given on evacuation notifications, as the specific evacuation routes provided will lead individuals away from danger and closed roads, Mathews said. Depending on the size of the evacuation, shelters may open up for those who have had to leave their homes, although most individuals usually go to friends or relatives’ homes away from the wildfire threat.
“One thing to keep in mind, if you do end up going to a shelter, [is that] pets are not allowed in human shelters,” Mathews said. “So have another plan for your pets, whether you’re dropping them off at a relative’s, or a kennel, or a veterinarian that can watch it for you for a while. They are starting to set up pet shelters next to human shelters, but that’s still not a sure thing.”
Individuals should plan to leave in their own vehicles, as there is not always transportation provided. Working with a neighbor on an evacuation plan can help if special transportation needs are required, like if one family does not have a car.
“The key thing is to take the evacuation orders seriously,” Mathews said. “You’ve got to make that decision quickly to act upon that information you’ve received… and then take appropriate action. That’s how you survive.”