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In Utah’s 2020 wildfire season, humans sparked nearly 4 of 5 blazes

Utahns took to the outdoors up to 90% more than usual in pandemic

Firefighters battling the Knolls Fire in Saratoga Springs walk the fire line on Monday, June 29, 2020. One home was destroyed and several others damaged by the flames.
Firefighters battling the Knolls Fire in Saratoga Springs walk the fire line on Monday, June 29, 2020. One home was destroyed and several others damaged by the flames.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tired of being cooped up and locked down, Utahns flocked to the outdoors over the summer.

And when they went into the woods, the woods went up in flames.

The state’s 2020 wildfire season recorded the most human-caused blazes of any to date, state emergency managers said Thursday. The 1,202 fires scorched the previous record of 937 five years earlier, accounting for 78% of all fires. And they charred nearly 100,000 acres across the Beehive State.

Ahead of the pandemic, the state drew detailed plans for the season, but it could not have predicted the 50% to 90% surge in outdoor recreation, said Jason Curry, an investigator with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“And, of course, all those people brought multiple ways with them to start fires,” Curry said at a meeting of the Emergency Management Administration Council held via videoconference.

Campfires, burning debris and equipment like blown tires and dragging chains were the main causes, said Kaitlyn Webb, also with the division.

Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox called the number “pretty staggering.”

“Thank goodness, because the combination could have just been so explosive with so many human-caused fires,” he said. “The fact that we didn’t lose more homes, the minimal property damage that we had, I don’t think we would have believed it knowing the conditions and the number of starts we were dealing with.”

He noted that few storms passed over the state in warmer months, so lightning did not play a big role in igniting forests.

Still, wildfire managers counted successes. They caught almost 90% of fires at 10 or fewer acres, cognizant that large camps of firefighters could spread COVID-19 at alarming rates.

The total cost of suppression came in at $60 million, with the federal government covering the bulk of the cost and Utah contributing $25 million, Webb said.

The 2020 season failed to topple prior highs of the decade, including the more than 1,500 total fires sparked in 2012 and nearly 500,000 acres scorched in 2018.