Utah 2020 Fire Season: The Latest On Fires Across The State
Utah’s 2020 official fire season ran from June 1 to Nov. 13. Here’s a round-up of helpful information to guide you through it.
The fire season has ended and there are currently no large active fires in the state, however there are several prescribed fires that are burning. For more information about prescribed burns, see below.
Active Wildfires In The State
Utah’s fire agencies are reporting no active wildfires.
Map of Utah's Active Wildfires:
A real-time source of all active wildfires and projects across Utah, which is regularly updated by state fire officials.
What Is Fire Season?
As defined by state law, Utah’s “closed” fire season runs from June 1 to Oct. 31. However, this year was extended to Nov. 13 because of warm, dry conditions across the state. The distinction refers to a different set of rules on burning and fire-related activities as the state enters its highest-risk period for wildfires. By contrast, a more lenient set of rules is in effect during the “open” fire season, which usually runs from Nov. 1 to May 31.
What Are The Conditions Across Utah?
This year there’s been an uptick in the number of red flag warnings from the National Weather Service this year because of dry conditions. Temperatures across the state are beginning to drop, but fuels remain critically dry and fire potential is still high, according to Kait Webb, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
What Fire Restrictions Are In Place Across The State?
Fireworks are now prohibited across all of Utah until New Years Eve. They’re typically only allowed July 2-5, July 22-25, December 31 and Chinese New Year.
Fire officials across the state have begun lifting fire restrictions. However, officials are warning fire season isn’t over and are urging people to be cautious. Local restrictions may still be in place.
Target shooting in parts of the West Desert District is banned. There have been a few wildfire starts in recent weeks started by target shooting near Utah Lake, which has had extreme fire danger warnings. The restriction is in place for all unincorporated land and state land west of Utah Lake and at West Mountain above 4,500 feet elevation, except for at official shooting ranges. The ban is for steel ammunition, tracer ammunition and exploding targets.
NEW FIRE RESTRICTIONS IN UTAH COUNTY. Due to High fire danger & incidence of fires, a closure to some target shooting in areas shown. 100% of fire starts in these areas so far this year, related to target shooting. Check restrictions details statewide at: https://t.co/hvuztg2t6f pic.twitter.com/Wk14nFFhUU— Utah Fire Info (@UtahWildfire) June 25, 2020
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 Temporary Flight Restrictions?
Flying unmanned aircraft, like drones, is always illegal near active wildfires. Often, authorities 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 Kait Webb, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Firefighting aircrafts are important for initial attacks on wildfires. 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.
What Are The Key Trends Of The 2020 Fire Season?
As of Nov. 10, Utah has seen 1,539 fire starts in 2020, burning 316,308 acres, according to Webb. It’s been a busy season compared to previous years. In 2019, there were 1,083 starts and in 2018 there were 1,396 by that time.
In 2020, 1,202 of them have been started by people. It’s been a record-breaking year for human-caused fires, the previous record was in 2015 with 937 starts.
“This is definitely not a record to be proud of,” Webb said.
Fire officials have attributed that activity to the combination of a record-dry spring and the greater number of people recreating outdoors due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Here in Utah it is the third driest spring on record,” Webb said. “We’ve had a lot of very dry and hot days over the last month. The snowpack has melted, we haven’t gotten a lot of precipitation so vegetation is really dry across the state.”
What Causes Wildfires?
People are the biggest cause of wildfires in Utah.
Around 78% of wildfires this year have been started by people.
“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,” she said. “We’ve had more wildfires this year 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.
But 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 and 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,” Webb said.
However, wildfires are also naturally occurring, resulting from lightning strikes.
What About Climate Change?
Most of the fires this year have been started by people, but climate change is exacerbating fire conditions across the western United States.
Climate change leads 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. We’ve seen that play out this year definitely in Utah,” 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, and those wet years are often followed by dry years, like 2020. When there isn’t much rain, that vegetation dries out and becomes “a tinderbox ready to ignite,” Meyer said.
Temperatures are also increasing across the state year-round. In fact, a recent article by the Washington Post reported that temperatures in three Utah counties — Uintah, Grand and San Juan — have increased at twice the global average. Meyer said that can prolong the fire season, which officially runs from June through October. 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.
“This is really just the tip of the iceberg. We’re beginning to see the impacts of climate change and they’re going to get far worse,” he added.
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, said Webb, noting that 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 you to do so or your life is imminent danger, she said.
Webb added that it is critical that every Utahn plays their part in reducing fire risk, given the dryness of this spring and unique challenge of combating wildfires amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
“Anything we can do to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires is going to be really crucial this year,” she said.
What Are The Different Teams That Respond To Fires?
Utah fire officials often refer to fires by the different types of teams responding. Webb said every fire 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 take priority — 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 fire response teams. It usually means the fire requires a more formalized personnel response.
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. But what does containment mean? Here’s what Utah Fire Info says:
The containment percentage can change based on fire behavior and conditions. A fire that is 100% contained doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out. Fire officials update the state fire map once a fire is officially out.
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 about wildland fire. 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.
What Are Prescribed Burns?
Because of wildfire's important role in the ecosystem, fire agencies in Utah regularly plan and ignite fires across the state.
These fires — often referred to as “controlled burns” or “prescribed fires” — 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 fire to proceed.
Though prescribed burns 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 under the “Active Wildfires In The State” subsection above.