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Utah 2018 wildfires destroy the most structures in past 15 years

A fire in Sanpete County prompted evacuations for residents of Blackhawk Estates in Fairview on Monday, August 6, 2018.
FILE - A fire in Sanpete County prompted evacuations for residents of Blackhawk Estates in Fairview on Monday, August 6, 2018.
Spencer Cox

SALT LAKE CITY — An estimated 370 structures have been destroyed by wildfires in Utah so far this year, the greatest loss of property seen in the state in the past 15 years.

Structures lost to Utah wildfires in the last five years combined would not reach a third of the devastation seen in this single year, according to data from the National Interagency Coordination Center.

In an average year, wildfires in Utah destroy about 49 structures. However, dry conditions and one devastating wildfire have made 2018 stand out.

"It's one fire — it's the Dollar Ridge Fire," said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Dollar Ridge certainly takes most of the blame. Since the blaze started July 1 it has consumed 363 structures — and at least 75 of which were residences.

"If not for that one fire, obviously the numbers would be far, far lower," Curry said. "That fire moved very quickly — as many fires have this year."

While investigators still believe the Dollar Ridge Fire, which has cost an estimated $20.9 million to fight, was started by human causes, the case is still ongoing. Curry said investigators do not have any leads and are keeping their options open.

The conditions that made Dollar Ridge so dangerous, along with the nearly 1,000 wildfires that have erupted across Utah so far in 2018, can be traced to months earlier.

"It has been dry for a long time," Curry said. "We didn't have any snowpack, so we're in an extreme drought."

In 2018, Curry said firefighters have seen the highest levels of explosiveness in the fuel wildfires consumed — light and heavy timber. Usually, weather and topography have had a greater role to play in the spread of a wildfire.

"But in a lot of the fires we've seen this year, the fuel has been so dry that it has been more in the driver's seat," Curry said.

These fires have consumed more than 158,000 acres — the second-most devastating year in the past five years, in terms of acres burned.

Across the country, the destruction in Utah stands out among other states in terms of structures lost. Utah comes second only to California, which has lost an overwhelming 1,149 structures so far this year, according to Forest Service estimates.

"Generally, over the last few decades, we've been seeing a number of national trends," said Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. "That is longer fire seasons — fire seasons starting earlier in the spring, lasting longer into the fall."

On top of that, fire officials have seen more large wildfires across the U.S., Jones said. They have also seen the average acreage of wildfires go up annually.

"That is due to a combination of factors," Jones said. Drought, warmer temperatures, below-average precipitation and a buildup of hazardous fuels — grass, brush and trees.

In 2017, a record number of 12,000 homes and other structures were destroyed by wildfires nationwide. So far in 2018, that rate is far lower, an estimated 2,151 structures.

"A structure is anything that has a roof over it," Curry explained. This can include a shed, a home and everything in between.

"With a fire like Dollar Ridge, we don't know, even at this point — and probably never will know — how many of those were considered homes and how many of them were considered other types of structures."

In more urban areas, fire officials may have a better estimate of structures destroyed thanks to building permits. In the areas destroyed by Dollar Ridge, records aren't as likely.

Officials, usually local sheriff's offices, will determine the amount of destruction firsthand, Curry said, by searching the path of the fire on the ground.

FILE - Linda Adams looks at what's left of her Fruitland home on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. The Dollar Ridge Fire destroyed her home, shed and camper.
FILE - Linda Adams looks at what's left of her Fruitland home on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. The Dollar Ridge Fire destroyed her home, shed and camper.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But after the fires are put out and the destruction estimated, there is not much that state and federal fire officials can do for those who have lost property, Curry said.

"Our mandate is to deal with wildfire," Curry said. "We prevent, we prepare for and we suppress wildfire, and beyond that, we don't really come into play."

Over 133,000 Utah homes are at high or extreme risk from wildfire, according to risk assessment firm Verisk — about 14 percent of all homes.

"Sometimes, people ask us, 'What kind of programs do you guys have to help us out?'" Curry said. "And as the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, we don't have anything like that."

In 2016, the cost of wildfire damage in Utah exceeded $3.3 million, according to state records. In 2017, damage expenses reached more than $4.8 million.

The cost of Utah's wildfires do not stop at damage expenses — an estimated $71.3 million has been spent fighting this year's 39 largest wildfires in the state, according to daily reports published by the National Interagency Coordination Center.

"Fire costs change by the minute," Wade Muehlhof, regional spokesman for the Forest Service, said in July. "Every time a plane takes off, every time a crew is called upon a fire."

Firefighting aircraft, engines, crews, staff, water, fuel and supplies all leave a hefty bill, and most of the costs are divided among the relevant federal, state or county agencies.

According to numbers provided by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, firefighting costs in the state reached an estimated $47.4 million in 2017 — in 2016, $37.2 million.

These numbers do not include the initial attack costs by federal agencies.

Moving forward, Curry said Utah firefighting operations will not change considerably after 2018's devastating wildfires.

"We learn from every year," he said. "Every season teaches us new lessons, so obviously this year's no different."

What they will do as 2018's wildfire season nears its end, Curry said, is look to the next season. Watch the snowpack, the rainfall, and get ready for June.