Wildfire risk in Utah: This year’s forecast, and how to prepare

An overview of what Utahns should know about this year’s fire season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A grass fire burns between Saltair and the Great Salt Lake Marina off I-80 on Saturday, April 30, 2022.

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Nearly 200 wildfires have already plagued the Beehive state as fire officials prepare for another fire season.

Utah’s fire season typically runs from June 1 to October 31, but as of this week, 195 blazes have already burned 1,017 acres of land, mostly in rural areas of the state.

Around this time last year, and in 2020, there had been 326 and 350 wildfires, respectively.

This year’s fire season forecast

Although there have been fewer wildfires so far, 99.9% of Utah is still in severe drought — and the weather patterns forecasted this year look similar to those of the past two years.

“Our predictive services are saying the end of May, end of June, was looking to be a little bit hotter and a little bit drier — so we’re anticipating that it could be above-normal fire risk,” said Kayli Yardley, a fire prevention specialist with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Because of this forecast, areas in Southern Utah have already implemented fire restrictions. Parts of Southeastern Utah are in “Stage 2″ of fire restrictions — which prohibit open fires of any kind — along with “Stage 1″ restrictions, which prohibit fireworks, cutting metal near dry vegetation, smoking near dry vegetation and operating a small combustion engine (like an ATV) without a spark arrestor.

Most of Southwestern Utah is under those “Stage 1″ restrictions as well.

“This year, we’re seeing a lot more finer fuels, more grasses,” Yardley said. “Especially in southern Utah, with this monsoonal moisture that came through last July, it created an extra layer of grasses, of fuels — so now we’ve kind of got this blanket. And it’s getting kind of scary.”

As hot, dry weather continues to scorch southern Utah this summer, Yardley said even a small spark — from lightning or otherwise — could quickly consume the withered vegetation.

Regional wildfire risk throughout the state

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Firefighters spray hot spots on a wildfire fire in Herriman, on Friday, July 16, 2021.

A state risk assessment from Utah Fire Info shows much of the state still remains at a moderate wildfire risk — meaning fires in open, cured grasslands can burn briskly and spread rapidly on windy days.

Only one area, which encompasses most of Summit County, sits in a low-risk category, meaning grasses and brush there may not readily ignite.

But southern and eastern Utah face a high-to-extreme risk for wildfires, which means no matter the conditions or cause, a wildfire could easily spark.

“Really any place in the state can have have extreme fire weather that gives rise to a large fire,” said Jim Lutz, an associate professor of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. “It’s the case of whether we’re very unlucky in having a fire ignition at a time that the weather is really bad.”

Utah’s spring weather has been relatively cool, but the state’s winter snowpack and precipitation levels did little to alleviate years-long drought, which has elevated fire risk in forests and rangelands.

“Basically, a week or two of very hot, very dry temperatures with wind — that can give us the big fires that we’re all concerned about. And those are a lot less predictable,” Lutz said. “So we have a drought that set the stage, potentially, for a bad fire season. So we should be very cautious. But it’s really the weather conditions that’s going to determine whether these fires get really, really big.”

How Utahns can prepare

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox and interagency fire leadership ask everyone in Utah to change their behaviors when outside, as they launch “Fire Sense”, a public service campaign designed to educate the public about making fire-safe decisions on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Utah residents can assess their personalized wildfire risk through the state’s assessment portal, which will generate a report based on location.

This report explains the threat to the area and possible intensity of a blaze should a wildfire ignite, along with suggested precautions and goals for fire prevention.

But having a plan for if a wildfire strikes is the most important step to take, said Heidi Ruster, CEO of the American Red Cross Utah/Nevada Region.

“Sit down with your family and say, ‘If a fire comes, this is what we’ll do’ — that you’ll have a kit ready to go — because you’ve got to get out quick,” Ruster said. “Make sure you have that plan with your family, but follow evacuation orders — they’re not joking. You’ve got to really follow that for life safety.”

That plan should include a designated meeting spot if a resident can’t get into their neighborhood because of evacuation orders, and becoming familiar with local emergency management officials to get updates on evacuations.

[Read more about wildfire preparation in Utah.]

The Red Cross usually sets up emergency shelters for those who are evacuated. The location of such shelters depends on the location of the wildfire and local evacuation orders, but they are typically hosted by a church or school near the evacuation zone.

The organization also has a disaster mobile app that tracks specific hazards and emergency response orders. Active blazes and fire updates are always reported through Utah Fire Info’s website, or on their social feeds on Twitter and Facebook.

More resources on fire prevention can be found at utahfiresense.org.

“The climate change challenge has changed a lot of temperature issues, disaster-prone issues,” Ruster said. “We in the past have been always ready for that episodic disaster, but naturally, it’s a chronic disaster situation.”

“It is just a matter of being prepared for any kind of emergency going forward, and especially for wildfires,” she continued. “Because they don’t discriminate — it can happen anywhere.”