If there’s solace to be taken, it’s that the charring isn’t much worse than it normally is, and Utah wildfires haven’t killed anyone — at least directly.
Federal statistics show that the Beehive State’s wildfire season is on pace to be the seventh worst since the start of 2002 in terms of territory burned (more than 160,000 acres so far). As far as the number of fires, 2018 is right on average.
Fire response in Utah has cost $70 million, said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The state’s share of that is $23 million. The federal government will pay the balance.
Even 2018′s big fires haven’t been that big, at least compared with some of the mammoth blazes of the past. The largest so far has been the Dollar Ridge Fire, which has scarred 68,400 acres in Duchesne and Wasatch counties.
If 2018’s wildfire season is exceptional, it might be in two areas. First, about 100 structures have burned this year. A year-by-year count of property damage wasn’t available, but Curry said the figure seems high.
And while wildfires in the state aren’t credited with killing anyone in 2018, the Utah Division of Air Quality says, as of Thursday morning, Salt Lake County already has racked up 45 red-air days this summer. The county had 40 for all of last year’s summer counting period, which ended Sept. 6.
If Utah’s wildfire season suffers from a perception problem, the air may be to blame. Smoke, from blazes burning in Utah as well as California and other states farther west, has grayed skylines on both sides of the Wasatch Mountains. Sports practices and public events have been canceled or moved indoors so that people don’t feel that burning in their lungs.
Meanwhile, Utah’s grasses, shrubs and trees remain dry from a winter and spring with low precipitation. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert cited the dry fuels last week when he described 2018 in terms it might not otherwise deserve.
"It’s the worst fire season we’ve probably had in memory,” Herbert told FOX 13.
Dryness is a reason conditions remain perilous. Iron County Fire Warden Ryan Riddle said the measurements for fuel humidity and the energy released by burning vegetation have shown the summer to be more parched than normal. That has created fires that are tougher to extinguish than normal.
Sagebrush, for example, usually produces flames 5 to 10 feet high. This season, Riddle said, firefighters in his part of the state have seen sagebrush produce flames as high as 20 feet. That can be the difference between needing a shovel or an air tanker to put out a single bush.
“Of course that leads to rapid rates of spread and rapid fire growth,” Riddle said, “and just makes our job a nightmare.”
Riddle credits the restrictions placed on campfires, fireworks and other flaming activities for mitigating the wildfire season. In Iron County, fire restrictions took effect June 1. Many years, those restrictions would have started three to four weeks later.
Curry said firefighters pride themselves on protecting life and property, so the lack of fire deaths on Utah soil — Draper Fire Battalion Chief Matt Burchett died Monday in California after a falling tree hit him — is a point of pride. That doesn’t mean 2018 is a light fire year.
“It’s been busy,” Curry said. “I do know that. Everyone I talk to says this has been one of the busiest fire seasons.”