What to know about Utah’s 2022 fire season
When is fire season?
Fire “season” is turning into a year-long event, according to Kayli Yardley, a spokesperson with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
“Wildfire season has become longer based on conditions that allow fires to start and to burn — winter snows are melting earlier and rain is coming later in the fall,” Yardley said in October 2021. “Other factors contributing to longer fire seasons include extended drought, tree mortality from pine beetles and invasive species, such as cheatgrass, that allow fire to ignite easily and spread rapidly.”
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 openly burn fires, though campfires are allowed in some places.
What causes wildfires?
People are a driving force for wildfires in Utah. In 2021, people were responsible for half of the starts. Though still concerning for fire officials, that number was down from the previous two years. Around 79% of wildfires in 2020 were started by humans, making it a record-breaking year. In 2019 people accounted for 70% of wildfire starts.
“We had a sizable decrease in human-caused starts, and that's something that we should absolutely celebrate,” said Brian Steed, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, at a May 2 news conference. “But one year is not enough and this year appears to be a particularly bad one. So please use good fire sense and make sure that all of us, all of us have a role in making sure the state doesn't burn down.”
There are a number of high-risk activities that trigger wildfires. These include dragging chains on a vehicle, parking in dry grass, target shooting and abandoning campfires.
“Recreate responsibly and as we head out into the great outdoors, be aware that in fact, our actions do have an impact on the potential for having catastrophic burns,” said Steed. “If we're mindful of that, I'm absolutely confident that Utahns can get ahead of this problem and that we can make sure that we're not doing stupid things.”
Wildfires also naturally occur from events like lightning strikes.
What are the present fire risk conditions?
Drought has a big impact on the likelihood of wildfires starting and how much they burn. In April, Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency because of conditions. It’s the third time in five years that’s happened.
“We have been in a state of drought for eight of the past 10 years, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be ending anytime soon,” said Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson on May 2. “Our lands are very dry, our soil is dry and this is all setting us up for potentially a difficult fire year.”
Utah’s below-average snowpack is quickly disappearing and the ground and vegetation are drying out quicker than usual, said Basil Newmerzhycky, lead meteorologist with predictive services at the Great Basin Coordination Center.
June and early July have typically been the busiest months for fires in Utah, and this year will be no exception, he said. Monsoonal moisture in the later summer months could help dampen fire activity.
“[We predict] a slightly earlier than normal start to the fire season, very similar to last year,” Newmerzhycky said. “We'll have to wait to see as we get closer to [monsoon season] how exactly that progresses.”
What fire restrictions are in place?
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, depending on conditions.
What about fireworks?
Fireworks are only allowed July 2-5, July 22-25, Dec. 31 and Chinese New Year. Fireworks are never allowed on federal land. They’re also not allowed in areas with fire restrictions already in place.
Each municipality has its own maps specifically where people can light off fireworks. More information is available on the state fire marshal’s website.
Over the Fourth of July holiday in 2021, there were a few fireworks-related starts and no large human-caused fires, according to a tweet from Utah Fire Info. During the week around Pioneer Day, there were 13 fires started by people, which is fewer than any previous year during that time.
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 also be helpful for the public. Fire officials said when people see these warnings, they should change their behavior, especially when recreating outdoors.
What about climate change?
Climate change is exacerbating drought and 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. Every year Mother Nature rolls the dice and wildfire conditions can be favorable or unfavorable. However, he said climate change loads the dice.
“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, where vegetation dries out and then becomes “a tinderbox ready to ignite,” Meyer said.
The drought Utah and nearby states are in isn’t a “year to year thing,” said the Great Basin Coordination Center’s Basil Newmerzhycky. Instead, it is the worst prolonged drought in modern meteorological observation history.
“This is an issue when it comes to fire season that’s not going away any time soon,” Newmerzhycky said.
Temperatures are also increasing across the state year-round. The Washington Post in 2020 found 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. Warmer temperatures in the spring and fall have made it easier for wildfires to happen in the “off” season.
“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.”
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 carries many environmental benefits. These include improving wildlife habitats, recycling soil nutrients, limiting the spread of pests and disease and reducing the overcrowding of vegetation. This recognition of fire’s place in the natural world marks a fairly 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.
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 are often referred to as “controlled burns” or “prescribed fires.” They take place under ideal conditions as determined by fire experts, usually in the early spring, fall and winter. 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 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.