State and federal firefighters feared the worst when Utah's record-setting 30-inch statewide snowpack started to melt in the spring because they knew it would produce plenty of new vegetation that could dry out over the summer and easily burn.

Those concerns ultimately never came to fruition during the traditional fire season. Months later, officials gathered to celebrate one of Utah's mildest wildfire seasons in state history.

There have been a little fewer than 800 fires that have burned nearly 18,000 acres this year, according to the Utah Wildfire Dashboard, a joint operation between state and federal land managers. Barring any changes in the final two months of the year, it would represent about an 18% decrease in starts and nearly a 30% decrease in acreage from 2022.

However, the firefighters focused their attention on the number of human-caused wildfires, which are down significantly this year.

Only about 41% of this year's fires were determined to be caused by human activity, burning a little more than 3,200 acres — a dropoff of about 18,000 acres from last year, about the same size as the city of Lehi. This is much lower than the national 10-year average of 87% and the percentage of human-caused wildfires in Utah just three years ago, which reached a record 78% in 2020.

"Utahns were vigilant and chose to recreate responsibly," said Utah fire management officer Brett Ostler.

What helped Utah's fire decline?

Two major factors helped quell Utah's fire concerns this year.

First, the moisture kept coming. Aside from a hot and dry July, Utah's summer was relatively mild and wet. The state collected an average of 3.29 inches of precipitation over meteorological summer, over a third of an inch above the 20th-century normal. It's Utah's third straight summer above the normal after five straight seasons well below it, per National Centers for Environmental Information data.

The timing of the rain also mattered. About 60% of this summer's precipitation came in August just as a lot of the vegetation was starting to dry out. This season's average temperature also wound up being Utah's lowest since 2014, 1.5 degrees above 20th-century normal, according to the data.

Brett Ostler, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands state fire management officer, speaks during a press conference about 2023 being one of the best nonwildfire seasons in Utah’s history at the Utah Department of Natural Resources in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Brett Ostler, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands state fire management officer, speaks during a press conference about 2023 being one of the best nonwildfire seasons in Utah’s history at the Utah Department of Natural Resources in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But Utahns also understood the assignment, Ostler says. He credits the efforts that people took to reduce fire risks as a key reason that there were fewer fires this year, pointing out that Utah's Fire Sense campaign received national recognition just last month for the reduction in human-caused fires since it began in the spring of 2021.

"A lot of these fires are caused by humans and human nature, and for them to act more responsibly is starting to sink and resonate with a lot of these people," he said.

Getting a head start on the future

The lack of fires this summer may pay off in the future, too. Ostler said many firefighters turned their attention to fuel reduction projects in "critical areas" that can help reduce fire risks in the coming years.

These projects are targeting "important acres," such as urban-wildland interfaces, adds Lucas Minton, regional fire director for the U.S. Forest Service. The agency has also started multiyear projects that aim to improve high-risk forests, such as parts of the Uinta Mountains.

"We've put a tremendous amount of effort into that this year," he said, noting that there is a large amount of new federal funds for these types of projects in Utah.

Chris Delaney, the Bureau of Land Management's Utah fire management officer, says this is also the case for land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Still room for improvement

Despite this year's success, firefighters are on standby in case something drastically changes.

While Utah's fire season historically wraps up around the end of October, state and federal firefighters are quick to acknowledge that the season has become more year-round in Utah and across the West. This is why Delaney said there shouldn't be any "complacency" when it comes to wildfire safety.

Ostler acknowledges that, despite the major reduction in human-caused fires, there is also still room for improvement. He said teams still came across far too many unattended campfires this summer, which may become a key topic Fire Sense addresses in the future.

"We recognize that there is still so much work to do," he said. "We're just going to continue to do what we're doing with Fire Sense and just continue to drive that message home that people need to be more responsible when they recreate. They need to continue to do what they're doing as far as helping us reduce these."

Firefighters and police respond to a brush fire at the Redwood Nature Area in West Valley City on Thursday, July 27, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News