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How 2020’s wildfires foreshadow a hot season for 2021

A wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatens homes in Lehi on June 28, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Less than a year ago, Lehi resident Matt Gonzalez found himself in a “surreal” nightmare as a fast-moving wildfire approached homes along Traverse Mountain.

“It looked like the whole neighborhood was going to catch on fire at one time because, honestly, as close as our houses are if one house caught fire it would have been like a domino effect,” Gonzalez said.

The state experienced 1,547 wildfires in 2020, according to statistics provided by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, and the total cost to suppress those fires reached $60 million. And an ongoing drought impacting Utah is only increasing fire officials' worries that 2021 will be worse.

In southern Utah, officials have closed open burning a month early in Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties “due to unseasonably high fire danger.” The restrictions normally start June 1, but begin Saturday.

“This summer is just shaping up to be a difficult fire year. We didn’t have much of a winter; spring is not looking much better. So the fuels are extremely dry, receptive to ignition. They’ll burn really hot really fast,” Unified Fire Authority spokesman Patrick Costin said.

Adding to the danger is a rise in human-started blazes, according to Jason Curry, investigations chief for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. In the past, lightning was blamed for many fires, but 2020 was different.

“Last year, human causes all combined were higher,” he said. “With this year, so far, we’ve had almost all the fires ... have been human (caused).”

According to utahfireinfo.gov, there have already been 167 wildfires in 2021, with 97% of those started by people.

“We’re seeing fire behavior already throughout the state that is quite alarming for how early it is in the season,” said Saratoga Springs Fire Chief Jess Campbell.

How 2020’s wildfires affected Utah

For Gonzalez, the Traverse Mountain wildfire, which began last June with illegal fireworks, the blaze left a lasting impression.

“It was just kind of surreal because this is something you’ve seen on TV before, you’ve seen in the news and you never think it would happen to you, but that is actually happening right in front of your eyes. We were just kind of in shock,” he said.

Lehi home owner Matt Gonzalez walks away from the burned area as he describes watching the 2020 Traverse Mountain Wildfire burn the hillside near his home and neighborhood in Lehi on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.
Lehi homeowner Matt Gonzalez walks away from a burned area on the hillside near his home and neighborhood in Lehi on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, as he describes watching the 2020 Traverse Mountain wildfire burn.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He said a young man was trying to alert people that a fire was coming.

“As soon as he said that, I saw the orange glow up in the mountain and it was no less than five or 10 minutes later the whole mountainside was just covered in fire. There was smoke everywhere,” Gonzalez said.

He and his wife gathered their 1-year-old daughter and packed up photos, important documents and other valuables into their cars.

They are thankful their home only had smoke damage from the fire, Gonzalez said, noting the incident made the family more aware of the danger of wildfires.

“You always want to be prepared and ready,” he said. “I don’t think I’d really do anything different. There’s really nothing different I could do.”

Hours later on June 28 and only a few miles southwest, the Knolls Fire raced toward Saratoga Springs.

The local fire chief said a combination of weather conditions and human behavior created the wildfire that destroyed one home and damaged a dozen others. Winds reached 50 mph, making firefighting efforts difficult and grounding their support aircrafts.

“Consequently we ended up fighting it from what we call the black, which is the burn side. We were basically assigning personnel to the burn side, instructing them to approach the flame head from the backside,” Campbell said.

This year Campbell is most worried about the western edge of the city and anyone and anything located near undeveloped land.

Some prescribed burns around Saratoga Springs have already been performed to lessen the risk of wildfire, he said, noting they’d rather take care of the factors they can control to help mitigate the risk before a wildfire can threaten homes.

Campbell said the department works with communities to teach the Ready, Set, Go! program describing ways to prepare spaces to defend homes from wildfires. He said Utahns need to also pay stricter attention to red flag days, windy, dry days where the risk for fires is higher.

Fire crews training for the worst

According to the Great Basin Coordination Center, May will likely bring above-average fire potential in the higher terrain of southern Utah. By June and July, higher-than-normal fire potential due to the drought will spread to northern Utah’s higher terrain, the center says. Areas with lower elevation, however, expect lower fire risk due fewer fine fuels caused by the drought.

Capt. Jon Slatore, Unified fire management officer, noted that a lot of last year’s fires weren’t considered large in acreage.

“A lot of that was, I think people were home and they were just staying local. This year, we’re looking at a lot of the same,” Slatore said Thursday at Camp Williams, where a Unified crew helps the Utah National Guard base manage its fire risk.

On Thursday, the crew at Camp Williams trained in the wilderness fighting an imaginary blaze to get them prepared for the season. The task includes separating fuel from the burning area and digging a fire line — the technique wildfire crews use to stop the spread of fire without the help of water. During the practice, crew members who serve as weather look-outs practiced weather predictions as they carried kits that tell them the wind speed, humidity level and temperature.

“So these are skills they can acquire, even in a day without fire. They’re out there practicing that as we speak,” Matthew McFarland, Unified Fire Authority spokesman, said.

Costin, also with the Unified department, said Utahns can help fire agencies by learning to create a defensible space between their home and wildfires.

Unified Fire Authority wildland firefighter Patrick Nordstrom checks the lugnuts on a fire brush truck at Station 127 at Camp Williams on Thursday April 29, 2021. Nordstrom stayed at the station while the majority of his colleague participated in training for the upcoming wildfire season.
Unified Fire Authority wildland firefighter Patrick Nordstrom checks the lugnuts on a fire brush truck at Station 127 at Camp Williams on Thursday April 29, 2021. Nordstrom stayed at the station while the majority of his colleague participated in training for the upcoming wildfire season.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

How to protect a home from a wildfire

“With respect to Saratoga Springs, it’s tough to predict, but we do a pretty good job of staying on top of the wildland-urban interface code that we adopted,” Campbell said, but there are limitations when dealing with private property.

Costin said homeowners can start taking measures to clear out any debris or foliage around the property to keep flames from spreading toward a house. These “ladder fuels” are a primary cause for wildfires racing through suburban areas.

Costin recommended starting small and working out from the house to the edge of the property, noting a 10- to 15-foot radius would help. He also emphasized spring cleaning and clearing out any foliage or unused and unnecessary items collecting in storage, either under a deck or similar home attachment where items are susceptible to embers and radiant heat.

“The biggest thing just in our urban setting, if we do get a wildfire is just it comes quick and you might have to evacuate really fast,” Costin said. “There’s no time to create defensible space before you leave.”

The UFA recommends several steps for property owners living next to undeveloped land, including:

  • Remove the “ladder fuels” or plants that provide a link between the ground and tree limbs.
  • Limit the placement of plants and trees next to structures, under eaves, overhangs, decks, etc.
  • Keep weeds and grass cut and remove dead and dying vegetation.
  • Choose fire-resistant varieties of plants in your landscaping.
  • Plant trees and large shrubs in sparse, separate areas.
  • Keep the roof, rain gutters and eaves clear of debris.
  • Properly dispose of items such as old construction materials, boxes and yard waste.
  • Stack firewood away from structures, fences or anything else that may be combustible.
  • Create at least a 30-foot safety zone around your home.

If homeowners create a defensible space ahead of time, Costin said, those actions help the fire departments tremendously in the event of a wildfire evacuation.

Curry cautioned that homes are not safe even if a fire is not racing toward developed areas.

“More often, what happens, is we have a fire that may be a quarter of a mile away and high winds will blow embers out far ahead of the fire. When (the ember) lands in a nice patch of dry grass or in someone’s woodpile or their rain gutters that are filled with leaves and pine needles or on a wood shingle, for example, that’s usually what will take a house during a wildland fire event,” he said.

Contributing: Ashley Imlay