The approximately 1,300 wildfires that have burned throughout Utah so far this wildfire season have already cost the state $20 million, a state fire official told lawmakers on Tuesday, and that number is “growing daily.”
The Utah State Legislature appropriated $19.4 million for “fire suppression and rehabilitation costs” after the 2017 fire season, according to Ivan Djambov, finance manager of the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. In the years that followed, state officials designated $19.8 million and $12.9 million to the same efforts.
“Though the final numbers for the 2020 fire season are not yet available, based on preliminary data, in terms of numbers of fires and fire suppression costs to date, the 2020 fire season is likely going to be record setting,” Djambov wrote in a memorandum to the state Executive Appropriations Committee.
Brian Cottam, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which is the agency responsible for managing wildfires on non-federal lands, told the Executive Appropriations Committee during a meeting Tuesday that “the estimated cost of fire suppression to date for all agencies statewide is $36 million.”
“That’s not just the state cost, that’s all agencies,” Cottam said. “The estimated cost today for the state, our share of all these fires, is $20 million and growing daily.”
By the end of the wildfire season, which runs from May to October, Cottam said the FFSL would likely be asking for a supplemental request of $28 million, including $25 million for fire suppression and $3 million for “post-fire rehab” through the Utah Division of Natural Resources’ Watershed Restoration Initiative.
So far this year, the Legislature has appropriated more than $4 million in funding for fire mitigation, rehabilitation and wildfire reduction strategy, according to Djambov’s memorandum.
Cottam noted the state would be partially reimbursed for fires “where there are cost shares with federal agencies,” but added that those reimbursements wouldn’t be available until November or December of 2021.
Additionally, Cottam said the state was eligible for $18 million in Fire Management Assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Utah would likely get “over the next couple of years.”
There were 1,275 total wildfires reported statewide as of Sept. 7, Cottam told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Tuesday, noting that the number of wildfires had increased since.
“We’re probably at this point (at) over 1,300 wildfires, (and) that’s well above normal,” he said. “On average, we have about 1,100 to 1,200 wildfires (per season). So, already at 1,300, and we have weeks to go. We will have dozens more fires.”
More than 225,000 acres of state land has been burned as of Sept. 7, higher than the annual average of about 150,000 acres, according to the FFSL director.
“But the number that we really need to pay attention to is … the number of human-caused fire starts in the state this year,” Cottam told the committee. “And we are just about to 1,000 (as of Sept. 7).”
Cottam said “the costs are immense this year” for fires started by human activity recreation, including in roadside burns and fires caused by machinery, target shooting and fireworks.
“We have, unfortunately, broken the record for the number of human-caused fire starts in the state of Utah,” he said, noting that the previous record was in 2015. “The thing that is aggravating about that is none of those have to happen. All human-caused fires are preventable.”
Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, asked whether the increase in human-caused fires had to do with more people “getting away every weekend” and recreating outdoors more during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The short answer is absolutely yes,” said Cottam. “It’s not COVID’s fault that humans start fire, but there are more humans out recreating, doing things that they maybe never have done before, that they’re maybe not as experienced at, as a result of COVID. And we’ve seen that across the West.”
The FFSL director said Utah could improve its wildfire response by shifting focus away from wildfire suppression and toward preventive measures, including “changing human behavior so we don’t have human-caused fires” and encouraging local governments to “take on that responsibility of reducing your own wildfire risk.”
“If we choose to stay in a system that focuses on the reactive response to wildfire, here’s what the guaranteed promised future is: You’re going to have more fires, you’re going to have larger fires, more damaging fires, more costly fires and ultimately more deadly wildfires,” he said.
There are four wildfires active in Utah County, as of Tuesday: the Ether Hollow Fire, William Fire, Goshen Fire and the Battle Creek Fire.
Three of the fires were caused by target shooting, according to Utah Fire Info, while the cause of the fourth fire is still under investigation.