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Utah officials step up restrictions as humans cause 80 percent of wildfires

by Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune |

Fire restrictions are spreading like – well, wildfire, across Utah in the face of a busy season that has seen record numbers of human-caused blazes, now exceeding 520.

More than 4 in 5 of the 644 fires that have so far charred 150,000 acres were caused by human carelessness, as was the case with two fires Thursday in Tooele County, according to Kaitlyn Webb of the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Those two were contained before burning a combined 20 acres, but they illustrate the perils Utah faces this summer, with hot, windy weather coming after one of the driest springs on record.

“As conditions stay critical and we see active fire behavior, more restrictions will go in place soon,” Webb said. “More can be expected in the near future from our [the state’s] end.”

Several federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined the Bureau of Land Management Friday in elevating fire restrictions to “stage 2” over much of central and western Utah, effective Monday, putting limits on campfires, target shooting and other activities that produce sparks.

“We are at critical dryness levels. Not only do we have the dry grass, but we have leftover fuels that didn’t burn last year. They’ve become this ground-cover mat of dry fuels that are easy to ignite if someone drops a cigarette or a steel-core bullet ricochets off a rock,” Webb said. “We remind [target shooters] to choose backstops that are free of vegetation and rocks so they can enjoy that activity without endangering public safely.”

Typically, about half the state’s wildfires are caused by abandoned campfires, targeting shooting and other human activities. The big upswing in such blazes is likely a result of the dry conditions, which make igniting a wildfire easier than ever, officials say.

With fewer recreational opportunities available due to the coronavirus pandemic, Utahns have stepped up their use of public lands that abound beyond city limits.

Human activities in Utah County in late June, triggered fires that threatened subdivisions in Lehi, Draper and Saratoga Springs, destroying one home, and burned a rock art preserve.