Threat of wildfires continues despite record-breaking precipitation levels

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A firefighter works to control a fire in a wooded area. Despite record-breaking precipitation, Utah faces an inevitable return to drought conditions and wildfire threats. (Photo Courtesy of Kelly Wickens)

Record-breaking precipitation left Utahns battling floods in the spring and feeling hopeful about drought conditions in the state. As summer temperatures rise, Utah’s attention turns to the next seasonal threat — wildfires. 

Kelly Wickens, a fire prevention specialist for the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said that the moisture produced more vegetation than normal this year. While Utah is currently in a “green phase,” she said, it won’t be long before all the new vegetation dries out.

“As it gets hotter and drier and our relative humidities go down, we’re gonna start seeing that vegetation … dry out, and when that happens there’s a higher potential for fires,” Wickens said. 

Wickens said there are measures Utahns can take this summer to prevent human-caused fires. According to Wickens, the main circumstances behind human-caused fires are vehicles and campfires. 

“Even though Smokey has told us no and taught us how to put them out a lot … people still have trouble doing that,” she said, referring to the advertising mascot Smokey Bear.

For restriction information and safety tips to follow while enjoying recreational activities, Wickens recommends people visit Utah Wildfire Information and Utah Fire Sense.

BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Ben Abbott said while more moisture in the soil generally decreases wildfire risk, there are more factors at play. Fires remain a concern as temperatures rise across the state.

Abbott said it’s really a question of how the weather behaves for the rest of the summer. 

Abbott said the weather is shifting into an El Niño climate pattern. This pattern, he said, brings higher temperatures and greater vapor pressure deficits. He described vapor pressure deficits as the opposite of humidity. 

 “The vapor pressure deficit is how dry the air is, how much energy there is to suck water out of the soil and plant material,” Abbott said. 

According to Abbott, when a regression analysis is performed there is an obvious relationship between area burned in the Southwest over a summer and the vapor pressure deficit during that season. 

According to the Department of Natural Resources drought updates, this year’s record snow made a “big dent” in Utah’s drought. As of July 3, 2023, 52% of Utah isn’t experiencing any drought. 10% is considered “moderately dry,” according to the drought updates

However, Abbott said the relief won’t last long. He said there was a lot of celebration over the recent improvement of water levels at the Great Salt Lake, but the lake level has stopped rising and is on the decline.

Because of the natural drought conditions of Utah, as well as human caused climate change, Abbott predicted that Utah could return to drought conditions by the end of this fall.

Abbott said Utah must bring its outdoor water consumption level down as Utah is currently 30% to 50% above the sustainable water consumption level. He compared water consumption to financial budgetting.

“We’ve got to be a little more sophisticated in our thinking. It’s like balancing a budget. You’ve got to be focused on spending less than you’re bringing,” Abbott said. 

Abbott said outdoor water use can be reduced by using local vegetation in residential yards instead of grass. Local vegetation requires little to no extra watering, while the average grass lawn uses approximately 3,000 gallons of water for each watering, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Abbott also said changing one’s diet to reduce the amount of beef consumption helps conserve water. He said the biggest portion of outdoor water use goes to agricultural land used to feed cattle for human consumption.

“If we were to … only eat meat when we really needed it … we would be right in that sustainable water use range,” Abbott said. 

Abbott said water conservation is a long-term way to improve the climate, which will eventually reduce wildfire threats and devastation.

Megan Wixom King, a Utah Valley native who grew up in a mountain community near Payson Canyon, recalled her experience evacuating her home in September of 2018 during the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires. 

“You really had to think about your belongings in life that are important and irreplaceable,” King said.

King and her family evacuated from their home in the mountains to a high school parking lot in their RV. 

“After the adrenaline of getting things out had worn off … you started to feel the worry of the fact that you might not go back to your home,” King said. 

King said her firsthand experience gave her a new level of respect for firefighters and understanding of people who are impacted by natural disasters. 

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