Utahns, it appears, are on fire —in the sense they’re doing a great job making sure their state isn’t.
Despite extreme drought, state fire officials are optimistic about how Utah’s wildfire season is shaping up this summer and it may be thanks to public awareness campaigns.
After a record-breaking year of wildfires in 2020, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands launched Fire Sense to combat human-caused fires, which accounted for most of the fires in 2020. In 2021 Utah had 922 fewer human-caused fires.
Karl Hunt from Forestry, Fire and State Lands said the organization has seen a 50% decrease in human-caused fires this year. Hunt credits Fire Sense, a public awareness campaign focused on preventing human-caused fires. Thanks to that public awareness, Hunt said this year’s wildfire numbers are still trending downward. Fire experts and professionals have a positive outlook to support these numbers.
“It seems to me that it’s been working,” said battalion chief at Provo fire station 21 Crag Olson about public awareness campaigns like Fire Sense. “I’ve seen less in the last year or two than in previous years, I think people are being more cautious.”
State Fire Marshal Ted Black agreed. “I think all in all the citizens of Utah have stepped up and are trying to be safe,” he said.
This year to date, Hunt said Utah has had 384 wildfires which have burned 6,000 acres. Around 250 of those fires are human-caused. “That’s a number that is always up there for the cause of wildfires,” he said.
Campaigns such as “Hot Rod, Hot Sparks,” “Happy Campers Douse Fires” and “Ready, Aim… No Fire” promote awareness for common culprits of wildfires: cars, campers and even guns.
Olson said the Fourth of July weekend proved public behavior is changing for the better. “I was pleasantly surprised at how few fire calls we had,” he said. “People did a lot better job.”
The state often uses fire as a land management tool but it can quickly become a problem when unplanned and unnatural fires start popping up.
“We can use fire to increase the health of the forest,” Black said. “But if all of our resources are out on fires we can’t do that.”
Thanks to a “significant reduction” in the amount of human-caused fires, Black said the Forest Service and other divisions of the Department of Natural Resources are able to put resources toward fighting more natural fires this year.
The resource drain from fighting human-caused fires is a potential issue with most of Utah in an extreme drought. Black said so far, the drought has primarily affected how fast and how far fires burn but could become a bigger issue if water reserves start to run out.
“We’ve had plenty of water to fight fire, but if we start having lakes go dry then that’s going to be an issue,” he said.
In the weeks before July 24th, another holiday which usually involves fireworks, Olson said dry weather could make celebrations dangerous if people aren’t careful.
“If we don’t get any more rain between now and then we’ll be a little worse off,” he said.
As the summer continues to get hotter and drier, the responsibility for reducing human-caused fires falls to every Utahn camping, lighting fireworks and even driving.
“We can make a significant difference in the health of our forest, in reducing loss, unnecessary loss due to fire, if we just be careful,” Olson said.