Utah looking at 'particularly bad' fire season — but you and Mother Nature could change that

Kevin Greenhalgh is concerned with what he's seen in recent weeks as Utah's snowpack continues to melt.

There are dry conditions everywhere, especially in southern Utah's mountains. And with a bleak long-range forecast for the final month of meteorological spring and the first half of the summer, it's only going to get worse.

"They're very dry, much below normal and leading us to believe we're in for potentially an early season down south," said Greenhalgh, the deputy director of the U.S. Forest Service's Regional Fire and Aviation Management. "And probably a long season as that dryness is predicted to just continue moving north along the spine of the Wasatch, and finally up into Idaho."

The high risk of fires may taper off later in the summer with the prospect of monsoonal moisture; however, he and other experts point out that years of drought conditions will continue to make Utah prone to potentially large wildfires that the state has escaped in recent years.

Those risks — coupled with low reservoir levels that offer the possibility of less water for firefighters to work with this summer — are why they, along with state leaders, are pleading with Utahns to make smart decisions while recreating outdoors, to avoid sparking a catastrophic wildfire.

They gathered at Little Dell Reservoir Monday to highlight the current fire risks and address the outlook for the next few months, while also talking about wildfire prevention methods since May is Wildfire Awareness Month.

"This year appears to be a particularly bad one, so please use good fire sense," said Brian Steed, the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. "All of us have a role in making sure the state doesn't burn down."

Utah's fire conditions outlook for 2022

There have already been 93 fires throughout Utah this year, collectively burning close to 200 acres, according to the Utah Wildfire Dashboard, which is updated by state and federal land managers in the state. It's a much tamer start than last year, when there were over 200 fires that burned more than 8,000 acres by May 17.

That doesn't mean Utah is not at risk for fires right now.

Nearly half of the state is currently listed in extreme drought and almost all of the state is in at least severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. On top of the lingering drought, the below-average snowpack is why there's already been some fires in Utah and the West, and why there's a higher risk.

Kevin Greenhalgh, deputy director of Regional Fire and Aviation Management, talks about ways to prevent wildfires during a press conference at Little Dell Reservoir outside of Salt Lake City on Monday.
Kevin Greenhalgh, deputy director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Fire and Aviation Management, talks about ways to prevent wildfires during a press conference at Little Dell Reservoir outside of Salt Lake City on Monday. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Several instances of strong, warm wind events have also reduced the benefits of storms that produced decent precipitation totals over the past few weeks, Greenhalgh notes. An 80-acre fire by the Saltair marina didn't do any major damage over the weekend, but it highlights how dry conditions currently are.

The near future is more of a mixed bag. Drizzly weather is in this week's forecast but it will dry up a bit after that.

National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center projects above-average temperatures across the country this summer, especially in the Intermountain West. The likelihood of future precipitation varies throughout the summer, based on outlooks published on April 21.

The center predicts central and southern Utah to have a stronger likelihood for below-average precipitation totals to end spring and begin summer; while southern Utah is listed as having "equal chances" — a meteorological term that essentially means there's no clear outlook for above or below average rainfall.

All of Utah currently falls under equal chances for the second half of summer, while drier conditions are projected for Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Colorado and the Great Plains. Southern Arizona is projected to have a 33-40% chance of above-average precipitation, an indicator that the conditions are ripe for a good summer monsoon season, which could trickle up to Utah as it did in July and August last year.

"Some of the large-scale climate variables are in place that would create a fairly robust monsoon again — that would start at or near July 4," said Basil Newmerzhycky, a lead meteorologist for Great Basin Predictive Services. "Having that really takes the edge off southern and central areas."

This, he adds, is a "best estimate" at the moment, but it does look promising for the second half of the summer.

The Great Basin Coordination Center, which covers fire resources arrangements in Utah, most of Nevada and Idaho, as well as parts of Arizona, California and Wyoming, already published its fire outlook for the summer, using a mixture of the current conditions and those long-range weather forecasts.

Map of fire risk in Utah

The map shows normal fire risks across the region, which doesn't really change throughout the summer. However, the areas considered at the highest risk do migrate north over time with the long-range forecast.

This map shows the fire outlook for the next four months based on current and projected land conditions in areas within the Great Basin Coordination Center range. Red indicates above average risk, while tan indicates normal fire risk.
This map shows the fire outlook for the next four months based on current and projected land conditions in areas within the Great Basin Coordination Center range. Red indicates above average risk, while tan indicates normal fire risk. | Great Basin Coordination Center

The Great Basin Coordination Center predicts southern Utah and southern Nevada will have an above-average risk of wildfires in May. Newmerzhycky said the strongest uptick in risk will come in the latter half of this month as the last of the region's snowpack melts and the land dries up. It leaves the region vulnerable, especially if any lightning-producing storm rolls by.

The above-average risk — mostly for middle- to higher-elevation areas — then spreads to include most of central Utah, parts of the Wasatch Mountains and even some of the West Uintas in June. This is typically when the state's fire risk picks up, Newmerzhycky points out.

The higher risk spreads in northern Utah and into Idaho by July, while parts of southern Utah fall back to normal risk. Then in August, it puts almost all of Utah at normal risk, while the highest risks are in Idaho and the sliver of California the center manages.

While Utah may not be at higher-than-average risk for wildfires by August, Newmerzhycky cautions that even a normal fire season can be destructive.

"Don't be deceived," he said. "Normal in August is getting lots of fires and occasionally large fires of 10,000 acres or more."

Stopping human-caused fires around Utah

That strong start to last year's fire season fizzled out as the year progressed. In the end, state officials reported 1,131 wildfires across Utah, burning a total of 63,792 acres. Heavy monsoonal moisture in July and August improved conditions; however, the number of human-caused fires dropped before the rains came.

The percentage of human-caused fires dropped from over 95% in mid-May to a total of about 50% by the end of the year. In fact, there were 922 fewer human-caused wildfires in 2021 than in 2020, which was the worst year on record for human-caused fires.

Utah officials credit last year's launch of the Utah Fire Sense educational initiative for helping reduce the number of human-caused fires.

"We can make a difference. We showed that last year in terms of human-caused fire starts," Steed said. "That's something we should absolutely celebrate, but one year is not enough."

Steed hopes 2022 leads to an encore performance. It's why he, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and state firefighters reiterated the importance of reducing human-caused fires Monday.

They recited the basics:

  • "Know Before You Go" — look at the fire conditions in an area before you do anything that can start a fire.
  • Check with fire authorities and weather forecasts before burning any debris — and have resources on-hand to stop any out-of-control fires. Henderson pointed out that even a small spark can turn into a large fire on a windy day.
  • Extinguish campfires completely before leaving a site, pouring water and stirring ashes until it's no longer warm.
  • Don't drive on dry grass and make sure your vehicle isn't dragging chains.
  • Don't target shoot near dry grass or vegetation. Avoid shooting rocks or metal containers, and use soft targets instead. Exploding targets and tracer ammunition is not allowed on public lands.
  • Only launch fireworks when and where they are legal. The legal launching period is July 2-5 and July 22-25, and they are also not allowed on public lands.

"We cannot do this alone," Chris Delaney, Utah fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management, said Monday. "The role of the public cannot be diminished. We'd encourage you to check with local regulations (and) check the weather before coming to enjoy your beautiful public lands here in Utah."