HELPER, Utah (ABC4 News) – A majority of wildfires in the Western United States are human-caused, but data from the U.S. Forest Service shows lightning has triggered nearly 44% of wildfires, and often burns more acres of land.
The Bear Fire burning near Helper Wednesday is adding to the growing number of lightning-strike fires.
The fire ignited Tuesday when fire officials said a lightning strike hit the hot and dry ground.
“The drier the air gets, the more susceptible the fuels are to burning,” said Jason Porter, the fire’s incident commander.
Porter said lightning-strike wildfires happen every year in Utah, but in this region of the state, it’s earlier this year.
“We’re a good month ahead this year, and that’s certainly due to the drought,” he said. “The winter really provided no green up to these fuels this year, so, had we had lightning a month ago, we could have been in the same boat. We’ve really not seen a green up this year. That’s one of our biggest issues.”
He said the number of lightning-strike starts varies by year.
“Of course, a dry year, we can just be about assured any little storm we have coming through – especially drier storms like we had last week – we’re going to get starts out of them,” Porter said.
And most often, they start high in elevation, which can be a challenge for fire crews.
“Lightning, however, you have worse terrain, remote areas, and it’s just that time delay of getting folks on the ground and in there,” he said. “We do the best we can with aviation, but the real work happens when the boots are on the ground and get in there and sometimes that can take hours for folks to hike into those areas.”
A cold front is on its way in, and Porter said this is a hazard for fire crews, as winds will shift quickly, changing the fire’s direction.
The Bear Fire has burned more than 5,500 acres of land, as of Wednesday evening. As it continues to burn, Porter said the lack of vegetation is dislodging rocks, making the job riskier for crews.
Highway 6 remains closed as fire crews battle the blaze near the road. Porter said it’s possible the road could open back up Friday, but a time is yet to be determined.