ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah experienced fewer fires this year, thanks in part to “vigilant” locals and Mother Nature.
Southern Utah had a historically wet year, with nearly 16 inches — almost double the yearly average — in St. George alone. Grasses spread across the landscape, providing plenty of fire fuel as the area entered the fire season, causing some concern for fire managers.
Invasive grasses, like cheatgrass, dry quickly in the summer heat and cause high-intensity fires, Nickolas Howell told St. George News earlier this year. And a few weeks of hot, windy days can “throw us into fire season.” Howell is a fire mitigation and education specialist with the Bureau of Land Management’s Color Country District.
“As we continue the drying trend and as temperatures continue to increase, we definitely expect more fire activity into the summer … because there’s more grass and it’s really continuous,” he said.
However, the worst of these predictions did not come true this year for various reasons, said Kayli Guild, a prevention and fire communications coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Most fires were contained at 10 acres or less, and summer monsoons kept vegetation greener and moister, reducing the impacts of wildfire throughout the state.
“Things aren’t going to burn as hot,” she added.
Additionally, Utahns have set fewer fires this year.
The national 10-year average for human-caused fires is about 87%, but Utah’s 2023 percentage is approximately 42%, with 339 starts. The Utah Wildlife Dashboard reports that 45% were naturally caused, with an additional 13% with undetermined causes as of Nov. 9.
There have been approximately 807 wildfires in Utah this year, burning an estimated 18,060 acres. There were 199 fires in the five-county area of Iron, Washington, Beaver, Garfield and Kane counties.
About 66 fires were reported in Iron County, with 35 human-caused starts. There were also 66 in Washington Country, with 34 started by people. Washington County’s largest, the Dixie Springs fire at 614 acres, was human-caused, according to the dashboard.
The naturally-caused Thompson Ridge Fire, approximately 10 miles Southeast of Beaver, burned the most acres statewide this year at over 7,200, the dashboard reports.
Last year, 963 fires burned 25,551 acres. Human-caused fires accounted for 49% of starts, burning 24,447 acres, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
In 2021, 1,131 fires were reported, with 570 caused by people, burning nearly 64,000 acres. Human-caused starts were down by 62% since 2020, a reduction of an estimated 922 fires, the division reports.
The Utah Fire Sense program began in 2021, and the state has seen a steady decrease in human-caused fires since. Guild said the state’s firefighters are grateful to Utahns.
“Thank you for the support,” she said. “We appreciate folks doing their part, stepping up and using their fire sense. And let’s help protect Utah’s great outdoors.
“Utahns are doing great. We’re being vigilant. We’re doing our part to try to be careful with fire — be responsible with fire. But again, you got to chalk it up to Mother Nature. She contributed a bunch to our success this year.”
Cedar City Fire Chief Mike Phillips echoed these sentiments.
“We appreciate people being more careful,” he said. “And I think this state’s and the federal government’s — our fire prevention program and messages are being heard. And we hope that next fire season is just as quiet.”
A slow fire season allowed various agencies to dispatch firefighters to other areas of the U.S. while keeping the “home base” covered, Guild said.
“We saw some pretty big fire activity up in the panhandle of Idaho and up through Montana and Oregon,” she said. “They saw a lot of fire activity again this year. And so we were able to send our resources outside of Utah to help support and cover these folks.
“Instead of trying to fight for support and for resources, it’s a heck of a lot nicer to be able to say, ‘Hey, guys, we got this covered. We’re covered here, how can we help?’ And that’s always a really great feeling.”
Garfield County Fire Warden Josh Soper was recognized as Warden of the Year by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands at the State Fall Fire Management Meeting, according to a news release issued by the division.
He was nominated by Tricounty Fire Warden Brion Terry, who manages Sevier, Piute and Wayne counties. Terry’s management area borders Soper’s for approximately 100 miles. While the Thompson Creek fire burned, Soper assisted Piute County operations in communicating with local ranchers to ensure their safety and locate cattle in the wildfire area, the release states.
“Soper leveraged his previous relationships within the county to communicate daily with those impacted by the fire and displayed exceptional professionalism during the execution of his duties,” the division writes.
Phillips said two of the department’s firefighters and a brush truck were dispatched to Louisiana to assist with efforts to contain the Lafitte fire that has burned approximately 147 acres at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, south of New Orleans.
“There wasn’t a great big fire, but they didn’t have resources, so they needed resources,” he said. “But we went all over the West again this year on fires, but not as busy as previous years. … (The slow season) didn’t change anything. We have done the same as we’ve done in previous years.”
Guild said Utah is an “interagency firefighting state” that steps up.
“And that’s across the board throughout the nation,” she said. “Not everybody is as lucky to have such a tight-knit, interagency group, but Utah has that.”
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