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2020 fire season could be Utah’s costliest year ever

A new fire sparked near Pleasant Grove Saturday night, with several authorities responding. (Photo: Autumn Jensen)

SALT LAKE CITY – Firefighters in Utah have been fighting 50% more fires in 2020 than they did last year. The number of fires alone in the state could end up being higher than in 2018, Utah’s most destructive wildfire season on record. 

All this will probably cost taxpayers at least $28 million, between fighting the fires themselves and restoring watershed areas. 

That would make 2020 the costliest fire season in Utah history. 

State Forester Brian Cottam told Utah lawmakers on Tuesday that part of the reason this year is on track to be so expensive is because of COVID-19. 

“Nationwide, all fire management agencies, in response to COVID[-19], made a commitment that…all fires are full suppression, right off the bat,” Cottam said. 

The other way COVID-19 is pushing up Utah’s fire costs is that people are spending more time outdoors, and they do not always know how to do those activities safely. 

“Although COVID-19 does not start fires, it has encouraged folks to get outdoors. And we just know that there are more people out recreating in wildlands, doing things they’ve never done before,” Cottam said. 

75% of the over 1,300 fires firefighters have battled this year are human caused, which will probably set a record for the number of those types of fires in Utah in a single year. 

“Really, roadside fires are the number one reason for human caused fires. [We’re seeing] more fireworks than normal, certainly more target shooting. We’ve had a number of large, expensive fires caused by target shooting,” Cottam said. 

When investigators follow up with people, Cottam says most did not understand that they could have sparked a fire in those ways. 

Utah has already spent $12 million this year to cover the costs of last season’s wildfires and a few of this season’s early fires.   

Cottam will be officially asking lawmakers for that additional $28 million in the coming weeks. 

Legislators indicted they are also open to new laws or public information campaigns to curb all those human caused fires.