Utah sets record for human-caused fires, as forester asks for an extra $28 million to fight the blazes

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews search for hot spots after a fire in Cedar Fort on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.

As wildfires blaze across the western United States, displacing thousands of people and degrading air quality nationwide, Utah’s forester told lawmakers this week that the Beehive State is experiencing one of its worst fire years on record.

During the 2020 fire season, the state has seen nearly 1,300 wildfires statewide, state forester Brian Cottam told lawmakers earlier this week during an interim committee meeting.

“That’s well above normal,” he said. “On average, we have about 1,100 to 1,200 wildfires, so [we’re] already at 1,300 and we have weeks to go. We will have dozens more fires.”

To manage it, state foresters plan to ask state lawmakers for an extra $28 million to pay for fighting this year’s fires and for post-fire rehabilitation on top of roughly $12 million that’s already been budgeted. And with Utah’s fire season extending into October, the total cost is still going up, said Cottam, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Land.

“In terms of number of fires and fire suppression costs, the 2020 fire season is going to be setting some records, based on the preliminary data,” Cottam said during a separate briefing before the state’s Executive Appropriations Interim Committee.

The Legislature has had to provide supplemental appropriations for fire suppression and rehabilitation costs every year for the past three years.

At least one blaze has erupted every day in Utah since April 18, Cottam said, adding the state has seen a 50% increase in wildfires compared to last year. With 1,275 wildfires reported in 2020 to date, the state is on pace to match the totals for 2018, arguably the worst fire year on record, he added.

This year’s fires have consumed about 225,000 acres, which Cottam said isn’t an especially high number, all things considered. What’s more striking, he said, is that about 1,000 of this year’s blazes were started by humans, representing about three-quarters of the total. Those include the 13,000-acre Knolls Fire, which nearly burned into Saratoga Springs subdivisions and destroyed one home. Officials believe it started at a popular camping area on Utah Lake’s west shore.

“None of those have to happen," Cottam said. “All human caused fires are preventable.”

Cottam said he believes 2020 has already broken the state’s all-time record for the number of human-caused wildfires, as people flock to the outdoors during COVID-19.

“It’s not COVID’s fault that humans start fire,” he said, “but there are more humans out recreating, doing things that they maybe have never done before, that they’re not as experienced at as a result of COVID. And we’ve seen that across the west.”

In a typical year, about half the fires are ignited by people and half are natural. But even as human-caused blazes have increased in 2020, the number of fires sparked by lightning strikes has dropped, he said.

Cottam said most fires started by humans in Utah have been caused by machinery but that the state has also seen an increase in blazes started by fireworks and target shooting.

“All across the board this year the causes are increased,” he said.

There are currently nine large fires burning in Utah, according to the state’s comprehensive fire information dashboard. The largest of those is the East Fork fire in Duchesne County, which the dashboard says is 22% contained and was started by natural causes.

While the fires burning around the United States and around the world have different causes, experts agree that they share the same underlying causes: hotter, drier seasons driven by climate change.

Lawmakers on the legislative committee that oversees spending decisions asked Cottam on Tuesday if state leaders are investing enough on fire prevention. The state forester said Utah could be doing much more.

“I don’t want to be crass, but we can do as much upfront work as you will fund,” said Cottam, who said forestry officials recently received $1 million for these prevention efforts. “That is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the risk that we have and the challenges that are out there across the landscape.”

While he said the state could up its efforts, Cottam told lawmakers in the natural resources committee hearing that the agency has undergone a “philosophical” shift over the past few years to elevate the importance of fire prevention — a “fundamental” change in priorities he said very few other western states have made.

When he took over as director, Cottam said the agency’s focus was on the reactive response to wildfires. But he said he recognized a need for a multi-pronged approach that also emphasized prevention and preparedness.

“I promise you as the state forester, if we didn’t make a shift you’re going to have more fires, you’re going to have larger fires, more damaging fires, more costly fires and ultimately more deadly wildfires if the focus is primarily on suppression,” he said.

It’s been a “tough fire season,” Cottam noted, “but we’re focused on the right things.”