Utah on track for highest number of wildfires in state history

With six weeks left in Utah’s official wildfire season, 2020 is estimated to see the worst wildfires in state history, state legislative leaders were told Tuesday afternoon.

Certainly, Utah’s fires don’t compare to what is happening on the West Coast — whole towns burned and the loss of life — as Brian Cottam, head of the state’s forestry and wildfire division told the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee.


But by Utah standards, it will still be the worst ever — costing at least $28 million in extra money not yet appropriated by the Legislature.
And, worse, upwards of 75 percent of the state’s wildfires are being caused by humans this year, not caused by lightning, said Cottam. Usually it is a 50/50 split.

The reason: So many more folks are out using rural areas of the state — camping, target shooting or driving vehicles over dry areas where sparks can start a wildfire.

“COVID-19 is not causing these fires,” says Cottam. But the coronavirus is causing Utahns and visitors to get out into rural areas, where they may not be trained to deal with possible fires, or not paying attention since they don’t usually camp or get out into Utah wild lands.

The number of wildfires in the state is way up, more than double what are usually seen. The only good news is that local firefighters are getting on the fires quickly, and so the number of acres burned is about average. It is the number of individual wildfires that is so concerning.

So far, 1,275 wildfires have been reported to state and local officials and have been fought, or are still being fought.

There has been at least one wildfire started every day since April 18 — an early start for such fires.

Utah’s wildfire season runs from April to the end of October, so there are still six weeks left. The statistics Cottam gave to lawmakers were one week old, and so more wildfires have been started since then.

Since the cost of wildfires usually requires a supplemental appropriation during each year’s January-March general session, that in and of itself is not unusual.

But the $12 million put aside already for 2020 was spent out months ago — the $28 million estimate is on top of that.

“We investigate every wildfire,” seeking the cause, said Cottam. And if the person who started the fire can be determined, and that it was started in a “negligent” manner, then state officials can seek repayment or even criminal action.

But for the most part, the human-caused wildfires are accidents, and so the state must pick up all the costs on state and private lands.

State officials can get reimbursed much later by federal land officials if the fire moves on to federal land. But the state must pick up the initial costs in most cases. “We are the bank” for fighting wildfires that start on state or private land.

“And because of COVID-19, we decided” before the season got going to use full force in fighting ALL wildfires, none were left to burn in areas where wildfire could be beneficial.
To knock down a wildfire quickly, firefighters will use aerial equipment — airplanes and helicopters. Such use takes up more money, both in flying and the chemicals used to suppress wildfires.