Firefighters share tips for preventing and responding to wildfires

Aerial view of wildfire damage to housing subdivision built into the dry foothills of the American West, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Nick Howell/Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In the middle of Utah’s “firework season” between Independence Day and Pioneer Day, wildland firefighters and land management agencies are trying to amplify their message of prevention and prevent another catastrophic fire year like 2020.

FILE – The Turkey Farm Road Fire burns through the night during its 2020 lifespan, Washington County, Utah, July 14, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Mark Bergmann, St. George News

Southwest Utah faced 397 fires that year, and approximately 90,000 acres burned across five counties. The Turkey Farm Road Fire was the most destructive, threatening homes in northern St. George and destroying thousands of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat. Just a week later, the Cottonwood Trail Fire trapped motorists on interstate -15 on its way to torching another 1,600 acres.

Both fires were linked to human activity – part of a dangerous trend that resulted in an unprecedented 78% of Utah’s wildfires being human-caused in 2020. Since then, land managers and their nonprofit partners have been focusing their efforts on stamping out negligence and promoting fire wise behavior.

“Everyone can be a firefighter during fire season,” said Sarah Thomas-Clayburn, community outreach coordinator for Conserve Southwest Utah. “Irresponsible, unsafe and illegal behavior around fire on public lands impacts all of us in public and private spaces. We can all play an active role in preventing human-caused fires in southwest Utah, and protect our loved ones, our homes and our public lands.”

Thomas invited Nick Howell, fire mitigation and education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, and Engine Captain George Haslett to lead a virtual fire prevention workshop June 29. The trio reviewed the damage caused by fires in the past three years and highlighted individual and community-level interventions that may prevent future harm.

The first step to prevention is knowing where fire is allowed and where it is not, as well as how fires start without intention, Howell said.

A vehicle destroyed by the Cottonwood Trail Fire that rests along the southbound side of Interstate 15 near mile marker 17, Washington County, Utah, July 19, 2020 | File photo courtesy of Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

“Most of our fires are caused along travel corridors, and some of the causes include tire failures, lack of maintenance, engine issues or dragging chains,” he said. “Then we just have people that park hot cars on dry grass.”

Fireworks are also a danger, though more commonly associated with fires in and around communities rather than in wilderness areas. In more remote areas, sparks from heavy equipment, cutting or grinding metal or target shooting are more frequently linked to wildland fires.

Stage 1 fire restrictions are now in effect for southwest Utah, meaning open fires are prohibited except in established facilities like improved campgrounds. In addition, smoking is generally prohibited while on public land (with a few exceptions), fireworks are off limits, cutting metal is illegal and all combustion vehicles without a spark arrestor are not to be operated while restrictions are in effect.

If circumstances demand, land managers may implement Stage 2 restrictions where open fires of any kind are banned, or even move to Stage 3 restrictions where fire-prone areas are closed to the public. Howell said drastic measures like these are generally unnecessary, but available as a last resort if lesser restrictions are not sufficient.

In general, the restrictions are designed to reduce human error and prevent unintended consequences, something that’s increasingly complicated by the sheer volume of recreation on public land.

“We’ve seen in the last few years just an explosive amount of people out on public lands,” Haslett said. “If there’s a 1% chance – just throwing that out there – that someone’s going to start a fire, but all of a sudden we’ve tripled the amount of folks that are on public lands then that 1% translates to a pretty good chance that people will start something.”

Most recently, four people were arrested after they reportedly started a campfire in Millard County, but it got out of control and burned over 10,000 acres. And while the blaze has slowed, it appears to have been human caused.

If someone sees an illegal campfire, improper fireworks use or other prohibited activity on public lands, they should contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office at its non-emergency line at 435-634-5730 or call 911 if the activity has already sparked a wildfire.

Smoke from the ongoing Halfway Hill Fire rises from the mountains in Fishlake National Forest outside Fillmore, Utah, July 11, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Utah Fire Info, St. George News

Responding fire agencies will work to contain any fires and minimize harm, but they also investigate the fire’s cause. One of the most effective deterrents in a firefighters’ arsenal is the heavy price that fire damage incurs, Howell said.

“We investigate 100% of human-caused fires, and if negligence or liability is involved we pursue cost recovery,” Howell said. “On any given day, if you have a fire that reaches the level where you need to use aircraft and dump retardant on that fire, it’s automatically going to go to $100,000 or more. We sometimes refer to it as the heavy hand of fire prevention.”

Sometimes restitution may be required in alternate forms, such as participating in a public-service announcement for fire prevention as was the case for the three teens arrested in connection with the Turkey Farm Road Fire. Ultimately, the fire agencies hope to reinforce accountability and communicate the scale of damage inflicted by wildfire.

Compiling the remarks of Howell and Haslett, as well as local and state resources, Thomas shared a toolkit with seven essential tips to prevent wildfires:

  1. Know and abide by current fire restrictions
  2. Report wildfires
  3. Save important contacts
  4. Share what you learn about wildfire prevention
  5. Get involved
  6. Protect your home
  7. Consult wildfire resources

Through recent efforts, the fire outlook has improved slightly in the past two years. 2021 saw fewer wildfires overall, and significantly fewer human-caused starts. So far, 2022 has been an improvement over its predecessor as well, with around 100 fires fought in Southwest Utah so far and only 4,881 acres burned.

“We are doing a little bit better, but we still have a lot of fire season left,” Howell said. “Our fire season typically ranges from the month of May to October, but with that being said we do have wildfires pretty much year round anymore – especially in Washington County. We just have to try and do our best with our unique set of challenges.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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