Aerial view of wildfire damage to housing subdivision built in the dry foothills of the American West, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Nick Howell/Bureau of Land Management, St. George News
ST. GEORGE – Amid Utah’s “fireworks season” between Independence Day and Pioneer Day, wildland firefighters and land management agencies are trying to amplify their prevention message and prevent another catastrophic year of fires. like 2020.
Southwestern Utah faced 397 fires that year and roughly 90,000 acres burned across five counties. The Turkey Farm Road Fire was the most destructive, threatening homes in North St. George and destroying thousands of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat. Just a week later, the Cottonwood Trail Fire trapped motorists on Interstate -15 on its way to set another 1,600 acres ablaze.
Both fires were linked to human activity, part of a dangerous trend that resulted in an unprecedented 78% of Utah wildfires being caused by humans in 2020. Since then, land managers and their Non-profit partners have focused their efforts on eradicating neglect and promoting Fire Wise Behavior.
“Anyone can be a firefighter during fire season,” said Sarah Thomas-Clayburn, community outreach coordinator for Conserve Southwest Utah. “Irresponsible, unsafe and illegal behavior around fire on public land affects us all in public and private spaces. We can all play an active role in preventing human-caused fires in southwestern Utah and protecting our loved ones, our homes and our public lands.”
Thomas invited Nick Howell, Bureau of Land Management fire mitigation and education specialist, and Captain George Haslett to lead a virtual fire prevention workshop on June 29. The trio reviewed the damage caused by fires in the last three years and highlighted high-level interventions that can prevent future damage.
The first step to prevention is knowing where burning is and isn’t allowed, as well as how unintentional fires are started, Howell said.
“Most of our fires are along traffic corridors, and some of the causes include tire failure, lack of maintenance, engine problems or drag chains,” he said. “So we just have people parking hot cars on dry grass.”
Fireworks are also a hazard, although more commonly associated with fires in and around communities than in wilderness areas. In more remote areas, sparks from heavy equipment, metal cutting or grinding, or target shooting are more often linked to wildfires.
Stage 1 fire restrictions are now in effect for southwestern Utah, meaning open fires are prohibited except in established facilities such as improved campgrounds. In addition, smoking is generally prohibited on public land (with a few exceptions), fireworks are prohibited, cutting metal is illegal, and all combustion vehicles without a spark arrestor must not be operated while the restrictions are in place.
If circumstances warrant, land managers can implement Stage 2 restrictions where open fires of any kind are prohibited, or even move to Stage 3 restrictions where fire-prone areas are closed to the public. Howell said drastic measures like these are generally unnecessary, but are available as a last resort if minor restrictions aren’t enough.
In general, the restrictions are designed to reduce human error and prevent unintended consequences, something that is increasingly complicated by the sheer volume of recreation on public lands.
“We’ve seen in recent years an explosive amount of people on public land,” Haslett said. “If there’s a 1% chance, just throwing that around, that someone is going to start a fire, but suddenly we have tripled the number of people who are on public land so that 1% translates into a very good chance that people will start something.”
Most recently, four people were arrested after they allegedly started a bonfire in Millard County, but it got out of control and burned more than 10,000 acres. And while the fire has slowed down, it appears to have been caused by humans.
If anyone sees an illegal campfire, improper use of fireworks, or other prohibited activity on public land, they should contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office on their non-emergency line at 435-634-5730 or call 911 if the activity has already caused a forest fire.
Responding fire agencies will work to contain any fire and minimize damage, but will also investigate the cause of the fire. One of the most effective deterrents in firefighters’ arsenal is the high toll that fire damage incurs, Howell said.
“We investigate 100% of human-caused fires, and if it’s negligence or liability, we seek cost recovery,” Howell said. “On any given day, if you have a fire that reaches the level where you need to use planes and dump retardant on that fire, it automatically goes up to $100,000 or more. We sometimes refer to it as the heavy hand of fire prevention.”
Restitution may sometimes be required in alternative forms, such as participate in a public service announcement for fire prevention as was the case with the three teenagers arrested in connection with the Turkey Farm Road fire. Ultimately, fire agencies hope to reinforce accountability and communicate the scale of damage inflicted by wildfires.
Gathering feedback from Howell and Haslett, as well as local and state resources, Thomas shared a toolkit with seven essential tips to prevent forest fires:
Through recent efforts, the fire outlook has improved slightly in the last two years. 2021 saw fewer wildfires overall and significantly fewer human-caused starts. So far, 2022 has also been an improvement over its predecessor, with about 100 fires fought in southwestern Utah so far and just 4,881 acres burned.
“We’re a little better, but we still have a lot of fire season left,” Howell said. “Our fire season normally runs from May through October, but with that said, we already have wildfires pretty much year-round, especially in Washington County. We just have to try to do the best we can with our unique set of challenges.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.
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