Lightning-caused South Fork Fire contained with 13.2 total burnt acreage

The South Fork fire burns south of Vivian Park in Provo Canyon. The fire burned 13.2 acres of land before being contained by a crew of 32 people and two helicopters. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jo Pollock)

The South Fork fire, spotted Monday, Sept. 19 south of Vivian Park in Provo Canyon, is reported to have only burnt 13.2 acres instead of the estimated 23 acres and is now 75% contained, according to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests.

Sparked by a lightning strike from last week’s storm, the fire took two helicopters and a crew of 32 people to contain, according to Kathy Jo Pollock, the public information officer for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests. The fire did receive precipitation from Wednesday’s storm and has not had smoke since.

“We did not have anybody on the line or up on site yet, so as they’re building lines, somebody walks around it and can GPS it,” Pollock said. “They were estimating it from the air with a helicopter and it was just an estimate that 23 acres, so when they actually mapped it it was 13.2.”

As of this month, just over 50% of wildfires in Utah have been caused by lightning, according to the Great Basin Coordination Center.

Tom Fletcher, a Brigham Young University chemical engineering professor and department chair and director of BYU’s Advanced Combustion Engineering Research Center, explained how fires caused by lightning spread.

“Moisture content, wind and slope are the three big things for how fire spreads,” Fletcher said. “So if it’s really dry, lightning hits and there’s wind associated with the storm coming in. Like when you blow on your campfire that makes it go better — same thing for a wildland fire.”

Despite the heat, Utah wildfires appear to be on a downward trend, with only 893 wildfires having been reported this year in comparison to 1,084 last year and 1,326 in 2020. In addition, human-caused fires have seen a 19% drop from last year and a 34% drop over the past 10 years, according to Utah Fire Info

However, Fletcher is skeptical about this trend. “It’s kind of cyclic, and it’s hard to get a trend over just a few years, because we’ve had some really big ones a few years ago.” He mentioned that this year’s fires have mostly dominated in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska. Referencing Utah’s fires, Fletcher said, “There’s some that have been public, but the amount of acres burned is not as huge as in other years.”

Nathan Kuchin, a firefighter who worked a total of four years for the Orem and Mapleton Fire Departments before moving to Texas to work for the Hurst Fire Department, explained a potential reason for the sporadic nature of wildfires. 

“Wildfires aren’t necessarily a bad thing, because they keep vegetation down actually. Generally, post-burn, that area will thrive for a really long time. If the area hasn’t burned for a couple years you can kind of predict that it will burn soon,” Kutchin said.

While wildfires are not all bad, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said catastrophic wildfires “are the most preventable natural disaster facing Utah. Reducing large fires in Utah will protect life, property, communities, economies and our environment.” 

One way to reduce large fires is through prescribed fires, according to Fletcher. He said that prescribed fires, which are initiated and controlled by experts to reduce the risk of larger fires, are a common practice in the southeast.

“In the west we haven’t been doing that,” said Fletcher. “We like our pretty scenery and we build houses up where the scenery is.”

Individual practices can also help reduce the risk of large fires, according to Kutchin.

“I think cleaning is probably the biggest thing people can do. Like keeping your yard neat, keeping your stove clean. If you’re going to have a campfire, make sure your site’s clean, make sure your fire’s completely out,” Kutchin said.

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