Many things can spark a wildfire in Utah — here are some you wouldn’t expect

Utah Wildfires

Courtesy of the Utah Division Forestry, Fire, and State Lands

UTAH (ABC4) – With the state entirely in drought conditions, and the majority of the area in the most severe possible designation possible, concern over wildfires has come to a head.

With the Fourth of July festivities approaching this weekend, many are concerned that an errant spark or ember from a firework could ignite a fire – or multiple fires – that would have a great impact on already strained fire departments across the state.

Governor Spencer J. Cox has repeatedly voiced warnings and fears on the combustible situation to state residents. He’s implemented a ‘Fire Sense’ public awareness campaign, has brought up fire safety in multiple media availabilities, and on Friday, tweeted an additional public service announcement video on his Twitter.

Cox’s efforts are to reduce the number of fires caused by human behavior. However, while extremely rare, there is some history of fires started in Utah due to bizarre natural occurrences.

A July 2012 wildfire dubbed the ‘The Lighthouse Fire,’ which burned more than 800 acres and nearly permanently damaged many ancient archaeological discoveries in Emery County, was sparked when a boulder the size of a refrigerator fell down a cliff face and collided with another large boulder below.

Well, sparked may not be exactly the correct term, according to Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands.

“I wouldn’t call it a spark,” Curry explains to ABC4. “Friction causes heat because of the law of conservation of energy. Like when you take a hammer and strike an anvil, the hammer will be a little bit warm, because that physical or kinetic energy turns into heat energy. And so then you multiply that hammer effect by a giant boulder.”

While one might think it would be difficult to investigate a fire caused by something so natural and seemingly innocuous, Curry says there were plenty of clues to identify the source of the fire nearly a decade ago.

“When we investigate fires, our first job is to figure out where it started, then we can start working on how it started. We do that by looking for physical evidence. So we looked in that small square area for evidence and there’s a giant boulder and then looks like there’s a collision that happened between boulders and there’s the fresh fragments and then you could see the impact of where that boulder hit the ground as it as it rolls down,” he recalls of the investigation.

A photo from the investigation of the Lighthouse Fire shows broken rock fragments that resulted from a boulder collision. The impact caused a fire that burned more than 800 acres. (Courtesy of the Utah Division Forestry, Fire, and State Lands)

In his 14-year career as a fire investigator, the Lighthouse Fire was the only one Curry ever deemed as caused by a rockslide.

As far as naturally occurring wildfires, Curry says the bigger issue comes with lightning-caused fires. Speaking to ABC4.com on Wednesday, Curry expressed concerns that thunderstorms in Southern Utah could spark flames. Utah Fire Info did not report any lightning-caused wildfires in Southern Utah on either its Facebook or Twitter pages, but Curry estimates that 300 to 400 fires were caused by lightning in 2019 and 2020 respectively. In years with greater lightning activity, that number can climb to what amounts to nearly half of all wildfires in Utah.

While human-caused fires will certainly be a theme of any flames that occur over the weekend and throughout the summer, investigators like Curry have the precedent of rockslide-created fires to deduce the cause of those that seem exceptionally natural.

And such events are rare in Utah; around the globe, they are far more common.

“There are some places like South Africa, where it happens pretty regularly,” Curry says. “Those large boulders drop off and roll out into other boulders and start dry grass fires all the time.”

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