Cost for fighting wildfires in Utah drops, but ‘we’re not done yet’

Utah has responded to 1,058 fires this season. They’ve burned more than 62,000 acres

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

If it seems like Utah’s wildfire season has been a bit mild, you’re right. And that means less strain on Utah’s state budget.

The number of human-caused wildfires dropped by two-thirds in July and August, which also means the cost for fighting those fires also dropped significantly.

Unlike most other parts of the state budget, the state does not use a set amount of money to pay for the cost of fighting wildfires. Instead, most of that money is allocated after the fact since it’s impossible to project the cost ahead of time. This year, lawmakers allocated $54.2 million to cover the cost of the previous year.

Turns out that was far too much. The actual costs for fire expenses and rehabilitation was just over $30.4 million, leaving $28.5 million lawmakers can carry over to cover this year’s costs.

But the budget news gets even better.

The estimated cost for fire suppression for the current fiscal year is just $16.5 million. With the surplus from last fiscal year, which ended on July 30, along with an expected $8 million from FEMA to cover the cost for fighting the Brian Head fire, Utah could have nearly $22 million available for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

“We’re really not used to people coming in and not asking us for money,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

Jamie Barnes, Director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said even though the numbers are encouraging, she still urges caution.

“We’re not done yet, and drought is still a major concern as a wildfire danger. We saw at least one wildfire every day from May through August 23 this year,” Barnes said.

Barnes said the state has responded to 1,058 fires so far this season, which have burned more than 62,000 acres across Utah. Nearly 40% of those fires were human-caused.

More than 44,000 fires have burned 5.6 million acres across the Western U.S. this year according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Massive wildfires in California, Oregon, and other western states have caused millions of dollars in damage.