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Keep up with the latest news about wildfires in Utah. If you have tips or questions, contact Lexi Peery at lpeery@kuer.org.

What To Know About Utah’s 2021 Fire Season

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Renee Bright
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KUER

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Did we miss something? What questions do you have about Utah’s fire season? Ask KUER wildfire reporter Lexi Peery lpeery@kuer.org

What Is Fire Season?

The start and end to the fire season is a “moving target” and increasingly it’s turning into a year-long event, according to Kait Webb, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. This year, Zion National Park had its first wildfire in February.

“We haven't stopped having fires [over the winter]. We still had them,” Webb said at the end of April. “We start to get more consistently busy, usually sometime between May and June and into July, depending on where you're at in the state.”

As defined by state law, Utah’s “closed” fire season runs from June 1 to Oct. 31 — when the state enters its highest-risk period for wildfire. During this time, people can’t open burn, though campfires are allowed. Utah’s “open” fire season runs from Nov. 1 to May 31.

Last year the end of closed fire season was extended until mid-November. This year, the start was moved up to May 1 in Southwest Utah.

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What Causes Wildfires?

People are the biggest cause of wildfires in Utah. Around 77% of wildfires in 2020 were started by humans, making it a record-breaking year.

“Roughly over the last 10 years, a little over half of the wildfires in Utah have been human-caused so it’s definitely an uptick in that percentage,” Webb said last year. “We’ve had more wildfires [in 2020] than usual and it has been a very high human-caused percentage as well.”

By contrast, only two-thirds of the state’s wildfires were human-caused in 2019 according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

There are a number of high-risk activities that trigger wildfires. Those include dragging chains from a trailer, parking in dry grass, driving on a flat tire, shooting targets, abandoning campfires, welding and operating machinery, said Webb.

“It’s really important for people this season to have a heightened awareness of weather coming up in the forecast and plan accordingly,” she said.

However, wildfires are also naturally occurring from lightning strikes.

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What Do Officials Expect For The 2021 Fire Season?

Fire officials are expecting another busy year.

As of June 9, there have been 326 fires that have burned over 12,000 acres across Utah. Fire officials say 90% of the fires this year in Utah have been because of people.

This year is already well above average in the number of starts and acres burned compared to the last five years.

“The public plays a critical role in wildfire prevention and can have a direct influence on how busy our season is,” Webb said. “Last year, 77% of our wildfires in Utah were human caused. So we have the ingredients for a busy fire season.”

“Let me just state unequivocally, it's really bad. It's as bad as it's been.” Cox said May 20 in regards to the drought. “We need everyone in the state to understand right now that we're heading into one of the worst droughts and potentially the worst fire seasons that we've seen.”

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What Fire Restrictions Are In Place Across The State?

Restrictions in southwest Utah are in place as of May 26 because of extreme fire conditions in the region, including record-low precipitation level, drought conditions and higher than usual visitation numbers.

That means no campfires are allowed outside of designated areas. Zion National Park has banned them outright. People are also not allowed to smoke or use equipment to cut, grind or weld near dry vegetation. These restrictions apply to all unincorporated, state and federal land in Washington, Iron, Kane, Garfield and Beaver counties.

Fireworks are prohibited across all of Utah until July. They’re typically only allowed July 2-5, July 22-25, Dec. 31 and Chinese New Year. Fireworks are never allowed on federal land.

Gov. Spencer Cox announced a ban on fireworks across all state and unincorporated lands at a press conference on June 8. He said municipalities have the ability to make further restrictions

“We'll be working with the legislature as we get closer to fireworks season, to make determinations on fireworks within municipalities,” Cox said. “Regardless, it's a bad year for fireworks. It's a bad year for anything related to fires.”

Exploding targets are prohibited in all Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management areas. They are also not allowed in Utah or Tooele counties.

Region-specific restrictions are put in place at various times throughout the year.

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A real-time source of all the fire restrictions in effect across Utah, which is regularly updated by state fire officials. | Source: UtahFireInfo.gov

What Are Red Flag Warnings?

Red flag warnings are issued by the National Weather Service and indicate when there’s high fire danger — a combination of low humidity, gusty winds and critically dry fuels. Any fire started in these situations can spread rapidly.

Red flag warnings are usually meant for fire managers, but they can be helpful for the public as well. KJ Pollock, with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests, said when people see warnings, they should change their behavior, especially when it comes to certain outdoor activities.

If you know that it's dry out there, don't target shoot or [light campfires] — take the mitigation measures,” Pollock said. “Think about it before you do it.”

In 2020, the number of warnings issued was “above average.”

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What About Climate Change?

Climate change is exacerbating fire conditions across the western United States.

It has led to more unpredictability when it comes to weather year to year, according to Jon Meyer, a climatologist at Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center. He likened the weather patterns to a game of chance. Meyer said every year Mother Nature rolls the dice and wildfire conditions can be favorable or unfavorable. However, he said climate change loads the dice to an unfavorable outcome.

“We’re really increasing the chances that any given year will have abnormally hot and dry conditions,” Meyer said. “We have less normal years occurring and more extreme years either on the wet to the dry or the hot or the cold.”

Some years may seem favorable, bringing lots of moisture to the state but that leads to abundant vegetation growth. Those wet years are often followed by dry years, that vegetation dries out and then becomes “a tinderbox ready to ignite,” Meyer said.

Temperatures are also increasing across the state year-round. A recent article by the Washington Post found temperatures in three Utah counties — Uintah, Grand and San Juan — have increased at twice the global average. Meyer said that can prolong fire season. Warmer temperatures in the spring and fall have made it easier for wildfires to happen in the “off” season.

Wildfires can also be ignited by lightning, but the dry vegetation makes them burn hotter and bigger than they naturally would.

“We’re beginning to see the impacts of climate change and they’re going to get far worse,” Meyer said. “I would expect the wildfire threats and risks to continue to increase as we get warmer, as we continue to see drier conditions and wildfire season expanding on either side. All signs are pointing towards worsening conditions for wildfires in the future.”

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What Is The Role Of Fire In The Natural Environment?

Wildland fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem. The U.S. Forest Service describes them as “a friend and a foe,” which carry many environmental benefits. Those include improving wildlife habitats, recycling soil nutrients, limiting the spread of pests and disease and reducing overcrowding of grass, brush and trees. This recognition of fire’s place in the natural world marks a new way of thinking. In the past, the U.S. Forest Service prioritized suppressing any and all fires as quickly as possible — a strategy that allows vegetation to build up and leads to larger, more extreme fires later on, according to the agency’s website.

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What Are Prescribed Burns?

Because of wildfire’s important role in the ecosystem, fire agencies in Utah regularly plan and ignite events across the state. These are often referred to as “controlled burns” or “prescribed fires.” They take place under ideal conditions as determined by fire experts. Temperature, humidity, wind, vegetation moisture and smoke dispersal all play a role in determining whether it is safe for a prescribed burn to proceed.

Though they are a relatively new tool for U.S. fire agencies, the strategy has deep roots. Native tribes across the American west have used the technique to promote forest health for thousands of years. A real-time map of prescribed fires and fuel reduction projects going on in Utah can be found on the state’s website.

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How Does Soil Moisture Play Into Fire Season?

Along with dry temperatures, Utah — and the rest of the Colorado River Basin — is experiencing extremely low soil moisture. This impacts how much runoff there is each year and how dry the vegetation is.

“That really impacts some of our higher elevation fires, and it really impacts the larger fuels,” Webb said. “We are anticipating that we may have a busier season in some of the higher elevations just because of the drought stress on a lot of that vegetation and snowpack is really low.”

In southwest Utah, soil moisture levels are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years.

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What Do You Do If You See Or Start A Fire?

If you see or start a fire, the best thing to do is immediately report it to 911, Webb said. Callers may be asked to provide information about the location of the blaze and describe the color and size of the smoke and flames to dispatchers. It is generally not necessary to evacuate unless the local sheriff’s office instructs people to do so or their life is imminent danger, she said. Webb said it is critical that every Utahn plays their part in reducing fire risk, given the dryness of this spring.“Anything we can do to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires is going to be really crucial this year,” she said.

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What Does Containment Mean?

Fire officials will give updates about a fire including potential closures and evacuations, acres burned and what percent the fire is contained. Here’s what Utah Fire Info says containment means:

The percentage can change based on fire behavior and conditions. A fire that is 100% contained doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out. Officials update the state fire map once a flame is officially out.

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What Is A Defensible Space?

People who live in the wildland-urban interface are encouraged to create a defensible space around their homes. That means not having any flammable vegetation within 30 feet of buildings, as well as keeping firewood away from structures and gutters cleaned.

This can protect homes and help firefighters when they’re responding to an event.

On a Saturday in early May, fire managers spent time in Cedar Highlands — a community built into the forested mountains near Cedar City. They drove around to people’s homes to assess their defensible space and practiced fire drills.

Greg Bartin, a fire management officer with Zion National Park, said it’s not just people who live in forests who should think about creating a barrier.

“Every resident should think about it because fire can impact anywhere you can be in the city or in a town and wildfire can impact your home,” Bartin said. “You don't have to live in the highlands above a city like Cedar City to have wildfires negatively impact your residence.”

More information about creating a defensible space is available on the state’s website.

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What Are The Different Teams That Respond To Fires?

Officials often refer to fires by the different types of teams responding. Webb said every event is ranked from Type 1 to Type 5 depending on the complexity of the fire.

That’s determined by what’s being threatened — infrastructure, buildings and people — the size and how many resources are deployed. Type 5 is the least complex and it goes up from there. Type 1 is the most severe and threatening fire. Webb said Type 3 is the middle ground for response teams. It also usually means the fire requires a more formalized personnel response.

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What Are Temporary Flight Restrictions?

Flying unmanned aircraft, like drones, is always illegal near active wildfires. Authorities often put temporary flight restrictions in place for an area, and all aircraft — manned and unmanned — are not allowed.

They can pose a serious threat to suppression, according to Webb. Firefighting aircrafts are important for initial response efforts. However, if there’s an unauthorized aircraft in the area, authorities are forced to stop.

“Those air resources have to be grounded and they have to stop with their suppression action,” Webb said. “They have to stop with their set of eyes that they’re providing us from the air. We’re not able to utilize them to help save homes or keep firefighters safe.”

Those caught operating aircrafts in a no-fly zone can be punished with fines, license suspension and potentially face imprisonment, Webb said.

The Federal Aviation Administration website has up-to-date information on temporary flight restrictions in wildfire areas.

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