Thanks to ‘stupid human tricks,’ Utah’s cost to fight wildfires doubles this year

Price tag swells to $18 million — compared to a norm of $9 million<br>

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune The Brian Head fire helped to double Utah's normal cost to fight wildfires this year

In an average year, Utah’s share of the cost to fight wildfires is about $9 million. This year, that is projected to double to $18 million.

“The Brian Head Fire alone cost us $10 million,” State Forester Brian Cottam told the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. “The rest of the fires in the state cost another $8 million.”

In other words, without the large Brian Head blaze, Utah’s costs would have been about average or a bit less.

Still, Cottam blames increased costs this year mostly on what he calls “stupid human tricks” — including burning weeds (which apparently ignited the Brian Head Fire) and setting off fireworks or target shooting in dry areas.

He said 548 Utah wildfires so far this year were caused by humans, while another 304 were started naturally. In neighboring Nevada this year, he said, only three wildfires were caused by humans. He later clarified this, saying he had misstated the number, which is 78.

“The number of human-caused fires on state and private lands in the state of Utah have been abysmally high, and we need to do a better job,” Cottam said. “With human-caused fires, every single one of them is preventable.”

He said 122,824 acres have been burned so far in human-caused wildfires in the state, compared to 97,016 acres burned in naturally caused fires.

“There’s just more stupid human tricks that occurred this year,” he told the committee. “Conditions were bad and that allowed a number of poor decisions to turn into wildfires.”

When asked for examples, he said, “Certainly fireworks. There were more fireworks starts this year than in the past,” although he noted the percentage of fireworks-caused blazes overall is still relatively low — even though they did increase.

He said the state also saw more use of exploding targets “and just target shooting in areas and times of fire-closure restrictions. With conditions like we’ve had this past year out on the ground, it doesn’t take much. It takes a spark.”

Amid questioning by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, Cottam said fires also likely were worse because of appeals by environmental groups that had delayed or stopped harvests of dead trees on U.S. Forest Service land — which could have lessened fuels that burned.

“It absolutely is fair to say that the fire behavior would have been affected had those salvage projects been allowed to move forward,” Cottam said. “ To what degree, I do not know.”

Adams said, “So the bottom line is we would have saved tons of ozone gases into the atmosphere and saved a lot of state and federal money and a lot of cabins and a lot of sensitive lands perhaps if we had gone ahead” with better fuels reduction.

Correction: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of fires in Nevada. The state forester said he originally had misstated the number.