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The coronavirus pandemic is behind Utah’s record number of human-caused wildfires, officials say

(Justin Reeves | file photo via AP) The Traverse Fire burns near homes in Lehi, Utah, Sunday, June 28, 2020. Ignited by illegal use of fireworks, this fire is one of 825 human-caused fires in Utah so far this year. Officials attribute the record number of human-caused fires to the coronavirus epidemic, which has led to an influx of people recreating on Utah's public lands.

Utah fire officials are attributing this year’s “staggering” spike in human-caused wildfire to the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed summer recreation into the outdoors.

Because so many recreational opportunities — from community swimming pools to music festivals — are unavailable or restricted, record numbers of people are enjoying Utah’s open spaces and that’s led to increase in fire starts, according to Utah State Forester Brian Cottam.

“We know it’s a problem. We’re focused on it and trying to find the right solutions to it,” Cottam recently told a legislative committee. “Of all of our fires this year, all jurisdictions statewide, 75% are human caused.”

Despite the state’s aggressive public outreach campaign and online pledge, called Spark Change, new wildfires flare up on a near daily basis from abandoned campfires, illegal fireworks, target shooting and sparks from equipment.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

With 1,077 fire starts so far, 2020 is on track to be a record year, although the total acreage burned, 193,000 acres as of Wednesday, is about typical for mid-August. What’s not typical is the 825 fires touched off by human activities, including the 13,000-acre Knolls Fire, which nearly burned into Saratoga Springs subdivisions and destroyed one home.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This June 29, 2020, file photo shows how the Knolls fire in Saratoga Springs burned up to the edge of South Swainston Ave.

That fire is believe to have started at a popular camping area on Utah Lake’s west shore. However, this year’s biggest fire was sparked by lightning. The 78,000 acre Canal Fire, which burned in Millard County for two weeks at the beginning of summer, accounts for 40% of all the land burned this year.

“We have 300 more human-caused fires in the state of Utah this year compared to 2018, [Utah’s] worst fire season in history,” Cottam told lawmakers. Two years ago, flames scorched nearly 500,000 acres in Utah, racking up about $150 million in suppression costs.

"There are simply so many more people out recreating in wildlands, in places that they might never have gone to, doing things that they might never have done before," Cottam continued. "Maybe they just don't quite understand that outdoor ethic and good fire sense of when you're recreating outdoors. I'm seeing this West-wide, but it really is specifically a problem in Utah."

The epidemic has foreclosed many options for summer fun this year so Utah families are heading to state parks, reservoirs, public lands and national forests to camp, fish and hike in numbers never seen before.

Even with a near complete shut down in March and April, Utah’s state parks visitation is up more than 17 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, according Utah State Parks Director Jeff Rasmussen, who also spoke to lawmakers.

Even a remote spot like Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake’s north shore is drawing crowds, with up to 50 cars parked at its trailhead on weekends, according to Jason Curry, spokesman for the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“It’s not easy to get to, there’s no amenities,” Curry said. “Starting in March, it was just packed. Our staff would encounter 30, 40 or 50 cars as you drive out. Same thing at Antelope Island [State Park]. An hour wait to get in.”

The lion’s share of Utah’s fire activity has occurred in valleys and foothills, leaving the mountains largely unscathed so far. Just 28,500 acres have burned on Utah’s five national forests, even though trailheads and campgrounds in the Wasatch and Uinta mountains have been busier than ever.

“We’ve been able to catch the fires that have started. Some are from lightning, but there’s definitely an increase in human-caused fires, especially abandoned campfires,” said David Whittekiend, supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “We’ve had the resources we needed and have been able to respond very quickly to any fire that has started.”

Forest Service field staff routinely find abandoned campfires, which they extinguish before they get a chance to escape.

The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache’s largest fire was the human-caused Upper Provo Fire that has so far burned about 480 acres in the western Uintas.

Last winter’s heavy snowpack ensured the forest fuels at higher elevations retained moisture longer into the summer, according to Curry. Accordingly, the fuels’ “energy release components,” or ERCs, a measure of flammability, have been low, making it harder for fires to get going. Nor has there been a lot of the usual lightning activity that ignites most wildfires in Utah’s mountains.

But after the many recent weeks of dry, hot weather, that situation is bound to change. Whittekiend and officials expect the fire risk to rise.

“Across the state right now, in many areas, we’re seeing record and near record high ERCs and low fuel moisture levels, which means conditions are critically dry,” said Kait Webb, the forestry division’s fire communication’s coordinator. The forecast called for thunderstorms developing Wednesday and Thursday at northern Utah’s higher elevations. “Those thunderstorms are going to bring significant fire potential due to gusty winds and dry lightning.”

Currently, seven fires are actively burning across the state. Nearly all were human-caused, including the two most threatening, the Cougar Fire in Iron County and the Cowboy Fire near Salina in the Fishlake National Forest, according to Webb. Both remain under investigation and remain under 500 acres in size.

Gunfire is believed to have started 28 of this year’s fires, prompting the state to close 17 wildlife management areas in northern Utah to target shooting. Meanwhile, Utah’s national forests have implemented “stage 1″ fire restrictions, meaning no smoking and no campfires outside developed campgrounds.

While Utah is seeing a record number of fires, the amount of acreage burned is not that unusual largely because firefighting agencies are putting out the vast majority very quickly. Most are fully corralled before they exceed 10 acres, according to Cottam.

“In a year that’s as dry and as bad as this is, I’ll take 88 percent and we’ll keep doing as good initial attacks as we’re doing,” Cottam said. “Primarily, it’s local fire departments, local firefighters who provide the initial attack and then they’re supplemented by state and federal resources.”

For more detailed information about this year’s fire season, check out the Utah Fire Info website. A new feature plots every fire this season on a map, color coded to indicate whether its ignition was natural or artificial. Covered in red dots, signifying human-caused fires, are Utah’s southwest corner and the Uinta Basin. Washington and Uintah counties lead the state with 114 and 113 fires, respectively.

And the fire season still has a long way to go.

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