Utah 2020 Fire Season: The Latest On Fires Across The State | KUER 90.1

Utah 2020 Fire Season: The Latest On Fires Across The State

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Utah’s official fire season runs from June 1 to October 31. Here’s a round-up of helpful information to guide you through it.

Updated 12:33 p.m. MDT 7/13/2020

Active Wildfires In The State

Utah’s fire agencies are currently reporting no active wildfires above 100 acres in the state. 

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. | Source: UtahFireInfo.gov

What Are The Current Fire Conditions Across Utah?

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for much of the state because of low humidity and winds. The warning is in place until Tuesday night and critical fire conditions are expected. 

The NWS has also released an Excessive Heat Watch for parts of Southwest Utah from Saturday afternoon until Monday evening — including Lake Powell and Zion National Park. Temperatures could reach as high as 112 degrees. Officials warn of the potential for heat related illnesses for those outdoors. A Heat Advisory is also in place from Saturday to Monday in the San Rafael Swell area. Temperatures could reach 106 degrees.

There’s a hazardous weather outlook for much of the state until next week. Critical fire conditions are possible starting Sunday through next week for the southern half of the state.

Higher than normal fire potential is expected across Utah through the first half of July, according to state fire officials.

What Fire Restrictions Are In Place Across The State? 

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. 

Fire officials in Southwest Utah have expanded fire restrictions to all unincorporated county, state and federal land, beginning June 26. In Southeast Utah, fire restrictions were put in place June 12 for Grand and Juab counties by the Bureau of Land Management. This includes Canyonlands and Arches national parks. 

On the Navajo Nation, President Jonathan Nez has instituted a Stage 2 Fire Restriction, which bans many of the same activities, in an effort to reduce strain on firefighting resources while the nation combats COVID-19.

Fireworks are prohibited across all of Utah with the exceptions of July 2-5, July 22-25, December 31 and Chinese New Year. They are never allowed on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or National Parks within the state.

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 Is Fire Season?

As defined by state law, Utah’s “closed” fire season runs from June 1 to October 31. 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 runs from November 1 to May 31. 

What Are The Key Trends Of The 2020 Fire Season?

As of July 6, the state has seen 644 fire starts in 2020, according to Utah Fire Info. More than 520 of them have been started by humans. At the same time last year there were 221 fires and in 2018 there were 409.

Over the 4th of July weekend 68 fire starts were reported and 18 of them were because of fireworks. Around 150,000 acres have burned this year due to wildfires, according to state fire officials. 

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,” Kait Webb, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands 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. 

Webbb said around 82% 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,” Webb 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 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 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.