Aug 17, 2023 - Climate

Humans are starting more of Utah's wildfires after years of mostly-natural causes

Data: Short, 2022, Spatial wildfire occurrence data for the United States; Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

An unusually low percentage of Utah's wildfires in the past 30 years was caused by humans, according to a three-decade national tally.

  • Yes, but: That's probably a credit to our vast swaths of uninhabited lands more than our superior fire safety.

Driving the news: Lightning caused a bigger share of fires in Utah than almost any other state, according to an Axios analysis of wildfire data collected by the U.S. Forest Service.

  • From 1992 to 2020, 40% of Utah's wildfires with known causes were ignited by humans — far lower than the national average of 85%.
  • Lightning was responsible for the other 60%.
  • Only Nevada and Idaho posted higher rates of lightning-caused fires.

The big picture: Areas dominated by lightning-caused fires also tend to be sparsely populated.

  • To see how closely the two align, compare the national map above to this map of zero-population census areas.
  • Obviously, human-caused fires require the presence of humans.

Reality check: The share of human-caused wildfires in Utah has risen steadily since around 2014, according to state data.

  • That figure exploded in 2020, likely related to the skyrocketing popularity of camping, said Kayli Guild, the state's fire spokesperson.
  • "There were so many abandoned campfires," Guild told Axios. "Or people were buying travel trailers, and they didn't understand that their vehicle wasn't equipped to pull the weight. … And then we saw lots of vehicle-related starts."

The latest: State officials ramped up fire safety awareness campaigns after 2020, and human causes dropped back to about half of Utah's wildfires, Guild said.

  • This summer's wildfire season is quieter than usual, likely thanks to the year's moisture. But that could change in a year or two as vegetation grows into fuel.

Of note: Of Utah's human-caused wildfires, the most common incendiary activities were recreation, vehicles and open burning of debris, per the Forest Service report.

Zoom out: Open burning was the biggest national contributor to human-caused wildfires.

  • Compared to national figures, more of Utah's fires were started by vehicles, guns and explosives, fireworks and recreation.
  • Utahns saw fewer fires from arson, smoking and open burning, relative to national rates.

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