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Utah's wildfire season is a budget buster with more human-caused fires than ever

Posted at 1:59 PM, Sep 15, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's wildfire season has broken records for the number of human-caused fires and the costs to taxpayers.

During a presentation of the Utah State Legislature's powerful Executive Appropriations Committee, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands said it has battled more than 1,300 fires of varying sizes across the state since April. That is a 50% increase over last year.

It averages to a new fire every single day since April 18, said Brian Cottam, the state forester. Over 75% of those fires are human-caused. That broke a record for the number of human-caused fires, he said. There have been 963 so far this year, compared to 566 in 2019 and 614 in 2018.

It has cost Utah around $36 million to date to fight the wildfires, Cottam said. The state typically budgets $12 million for wildfire suppression efforts.

Cottam dropped a bombshell on the Committee by asking for an additional $28 million to keep fighting wildfires through the rest of the season, which ends in October. In total, it could cost over $50 million for this year's wildfire season.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, asked why so many fires are human-caused and Cottom said this year, COVID-19 has been a factor.

"It’s pushed a lot of people outdoors," Cottam told the committee.

Typically, vehicles are the top cause of wildfires, but the state forester said they had also recorded increases because of fireworks and target shooting.

"I guess the only positive thing is next year there won't be anything left to burn," Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said grimly.

Still, Rep. Last wrapped up the discussion with a warning that lawmakers may start looking at additional measures to keep the cost of fires down.

"Maybe we're going to have to take a look at fireworks, too," Rep. Last said. "A lot of conversations down the road."