Utah saw a decrease in human-caused wildfires this year, but officials say fire season isn't going away
Utah officials are moving away from the term “fire season” because they’re now happening all year.
“We had our first wildfire last year in January, and ... it was right about December when we had our last one in 2020,” said Kayli Yardley, a statewide prevention specialist with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “So it is now becoming more of a year-long event than it is just a season.”
Despite the ever-present fire danger, Yardley said for the most part, the state was lucky to have lower activity this year.
People started around half of the fires in Utah this year, which is down compared to the past two years. In 2020, humans caused almost 80%, making it a record-breaking year. In 2019, that number was closer to 70%.
Yardley said this year’s stats are a promising development, but people need to continue to be cautious.
“It doesn't matter if it's in the winter, spring, summer, fall — you need to stay looking towards always trying to prevent wildfires and having that wildfire awareness,” she said.
As of Oct. 31, there were 1,131 wildfire reports in Utah in 2021, which is slightly higher than the 10-year average of 1,093 starts. However, only 77 of those fires exceeded 10 acres. Around 63,792 acres burned across the state.
Seventeen homes and 23 non-home structures were lost this year. In total, $43 million were spent in suppression costs.
“I thought we would have a little bit of a crazier season in … August and September,” Yardley said. “Usually we'd have a little bit of a spike and we didn't. I was super grateful for that because we had a lot of other activity happening around us in the surrounding states and we were able to go and support our federal and other state partners as well.”
Phil Dennison, a professor in the geography department at the University of Utah, said despite the relatively calm year, Utahns still felt the impacts of air pollution from fires in nearby states. One day in August, Salt Lake City had one of the worst air quality indexes in the world.
Dennison said what fire activity looks like next year will depend on the snow storms in the coming months.
“We're going into a La Nina winter, it looks like,” he said. “La Nina for the southwest U.S. typically means drier weather, but for northern Utah, we're really on the boundary of that region of influence so it could go drier, it could go wetter. There's really no telling at this point.”
Dennison said no matter what happens with the weather, it's going to take many years to get out of the current drought.