Could Utah’s 2021 wildfire season be worse due to drought conditions?

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Utah (ABC4) – Wildfire season in Utah is right around the corner. The state is also under a current state of emergency due to drought conditions.  

How will Utah’s low moisture, dry soil, and extreme drought conditions impact the 2021 wildfire season? 

Kaitlyn Webb, Statewide Prevention and Fire Communications Coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State lands says “humans tend to think we have more control over mother nature than we do.” 

The state has not seen a normal snowpack this year. Causing soil moisture to be “very dry.” Webb says this year’s expected dryness will make it easier for a fire to start.

“Conditions are conducive for it,” Webb says of the drought conditions. 

According to Webb, for a wildfire to burn, it needs fuel, like vegetation. When soil is dry, vegetation “burns easier,” causing concern for bad fire behavior. 

Utah is lucky to have many water resources despite the drought concerns. Webb says the state is worrying about an increased likelihood of a fire starting on the dry land and the potential intensity of how it burns. 

She says putting a wildfire is different than a structure fire. A house fire is fought with water directed at the flames. When a wildfire needs to be put out, firefighters work to eliminate vegetation from the fire path. 

Taking away a wildfire’s fuel will help it stop burning because it has nothing to burn, Webb shares. “That’s what’s really carrying the fire,” Webb says of the dry vegetation. 

Water in a wildfire is used to slow the spread or cool the ground and allow more time and safer conditions for firefighters to get in there and set up fire lines. 

Dry vegetation is not the only contributing factor to wildfire season concerns. Webb says weather conditions, wind, typography, fuel type, including drought and soil moisture, influences how a fire will behave.  

“Our concern in terms of drought is the lack of moisture,” Webb adds. 

Utah experienced the East Myton Complex Fire burning in Duchesne County in late March. 

Webb says the recent fire concerns were due to wind. She says this kind of fire is “not normal for March, but we had those really strong winds.” 

Looking forward to wildfire season, Webb says the state is concerned about potential wildfires statewide, Webb shares with ABC4. “We do have a drought statewide. Our concerns for conditions and fire potential is across the state.” 

When it comes to preparing for the upcoming wildfire season, Webb says “operations are as normal.” She says they are holding trainings, bringing on seasonal work, and working to stay aware of all possible conditions and predictions. 

“It is more of a mindset when you enter fire season, we are preparing ourselves, more of the mental preparedness for a busier seasonal potential and extreme fire behavior,” Webb shares. 

When is the 2021 fire season expected to start?

“It depends,” Webb shares. “It shifts every year; there isn’t a date on a calendar.”

She says it is dependant on conditions. Typically, Utah’s wildfire season tends to run from June 1 to the end of October. 

In 2020, Webb says the season started in May and ran late into the middle of November. However, she says it “varies quite a bit.”

Below are the Utah’s 2020 Wildfire statistics: 

  • 1,482 total wildfires
    • 1,143 human-caused wildfires, 77% of total, 453 more than 2019, recording setting year for human-caused 
    • 339 natural 
  • 328,250 total acres burned
    • 104,995 due to human-caused fires (79,144 more acres than 2019 from human-caused fires)
    • 223,255 due to natural starts 

Webb says the “public is absolutely crucial” when it comes to preparing for a concerning wildfire season. 

She advised Utahns to be aware and courteous of weather conditions and fire activity and weigh the factors before making a decision to target shoot, host a campfire, set off fireworks, or drive a car that needs maintenance on a Utah roadway that has dry brush surrounding it.  

Webb shares the following top cause categories in Utah starting with the highest over the past ten years: 

  1. Lightning 
  2. Equipment (exhaust, brakes, dragging chains, blow tires, parking on try grass…)
  3. Debris Burning
  4. Campfires
  5. Miscellaneous (includes Cutting, Welding & Grinding, Firearms Use and Fireworks). 

There are two types of wildfires in Utah, human-caused and natural-caused. Humans are responsible for lowering Utah’s human-start wildfires. “It comes down to understanding the fire danger,” Webb adds. 

Webb says Utah Fire officials are “anticipating higher than normal potential,” this season when it comes to wildfire danger. “Given how dry it is across the state, we anticipate a busy wildfire season.”

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