Cox says Utah wildfires could cost hundreds of millions of dollars if forecasts hold


Governor Cox urges the public to use “Fire Sense” to avoid a record wildfire season.

The Traverse fire burns near homes in Lehi, Utah on Sunday, June 28, 2020. Officials say the fireworks sparked the wildfire and forced evacuations early Sunday morning. (Justin Reeves via AP)

Utah leaders are calling on the public to “change behavior” in hopes of alleviating what could be the worst fire season in state history.

Much of Utah has experienced severe drought, and many forests and scrub lands are poised to burn. All it would take is a chain dragging across the sidewalk, an abandoned campfire, a ricocheting bullet, or a stray firework display to start a raging fire.

This scenario has happened dozens if not hundreds of times in the past year and Governor Spence Cox does not want to see a repeat this summer.

“We will enforce firefighting laws, when it comes to controlled burns, when it comes to people using fireworks outside the areas where they are supposed to, people who are not. ‘not putting out their fires,’ he told reporters on Wednesday. “We are going to have to implement more application this year.”

The press event brought together a dozen state, local and federal fire officials to unveil “Fire Sense,” a new public education campaign designed to empower people to make better decisions while traveling, working and recreating in fire prone areas.

Cox said state, federal and local governments will spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” if the fire season turns out to be as severe as expected.

Utah has already got off to a bad start with 227 fires on Tuesday affecting 8,700 acres. All but eight of the fires were caused by people. At this time last year, by comparison, 86 fires were recorded on 804 acres.

“More man-made forest fires inevitably lead to more threats to lives and property. Given the current drought conditions in Utah, it is more important than ever this fire season to be careful with fire and anything that can cause a fire, ”said Brian Steed, executive director of the ministry. of Utah Natural Resources. “We absolutely cannot afford to continue this trend of increasing man-made forest fires that we have seen in the state in recent years.”

According to Basil Newmerzhycky, meteorologist with the Great Basin Predictive Fire Weather Program at the Bureau of Land Management’s Great Basin Predictive Fire Weather Program, this year’s drought is one of the record breaking ones. He said 80% of Utah is currently in an “exceptional drought.” Over the past 30 years, exceptional droughts have only occurred once or twice a decade and have covered only 5-10% of the state, he said.

The drought is of particular concern as the driest conditions usually don’t arrive until August or September.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Newmerzhycky said.

With such dry conditions, fires start easily and are difficult to control. Despite strong warnings from fire safety officials, last year was a banner year for man-made fires.

People started a record 1,143 wildfires in 2020, or 77% of the total, according to the Utah State Forestry, Fire and Land Division. But it was lightning, not people, that started Utah’s two biggest fires, which accounted for more than half of the area burned. In total, wildfires burned nearly 330,000 acres in Utah last year, double the 10-year average. About $ 77 million has been spent to fight these fires.

Last year’s record was above average, but by no means a record. The 2007, 2012 and 2018 fire seasons were worse, with many more acres burned and structures destroyed.

Yet Utah officials are not prepared to ban fireworks or target shooting, two of the leading unnatural causes of wildfires, on state-controlled lands. It’s a different story on federal lands.

Earlier this month, the BLM issued sweeping bans on fireworks and the use of steel ammunition. And don’t even think about using explosive targets. Those who violate these orders are subject to a fine of $ 1,000 and could be charged for the cost of fighting any fires they start.

“On Remembrance Day, we take the time to remember and honor these men and women who gave their lives to protect our nation and the values ​​we hold dear,” said Greg Sheehan, Director of State of BLM in Utah. “If you choose to go out on your public lands on the weekend, please celebrate responsibly and use Fire Sense to help prevent wildfires.”

Fire safety officials urge people to follow these precautions:

  • Do not leave campfires unattended and extinguish them completely.

  • Do not drive or park on dry grass.

  • Make sure the tow chains do not drag and the tow straps are secure.

  • Make sure spark arresters are properly installed and maintained on internal combustion engines.

  • Take extra care on “red flag” days.


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