SALT LAKE CITY -- The mountains still may be covered in snow, but officials already are preparing for another busy wildfire season in Utah amid growing concern over the cost to battle them.
State officials told the Deseret News that the upcoming season could be as devastating as 2012 when wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres across the state and cost more than $50 million to fight.
"As the weather becomes more extreme across the nation, so does the threat of fire," said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management. "Utahns are encouraged to know their risks, take action and be an example to others."
The warning comes as a report by the nonpartisan research group Headwaters Economics shows that 84 percent of private lands near fire-prone wildland-urban interface areas remain undeveloped in the West.
The group says firefighting costs greatly increase in such developed areas because of the desire to protect houses.
The report shows nearly half of Salt Lake County's wildland-urban interface has been developed - by far the most in Utah - followed by Weber County at 28 percent. Overall, 93.4 percent of Utah's interface remains undeveloped.
While Utah ranks well regionally for the least amount of developed wildland interface, officials said, it risks greater costs if future development isn't handled wisely.
The state has mapped and ranked more than 600 at-risk communities in all 29 counties based on such factors as how hazardous the fire fuels are and the value of what is at risk.
Tracy Dunford of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said the list is intended as a guide to help communities reduce their risk. It stops short of imposing consequences on town leaders or developers who have allowed homes to be built in the interface or residents who have moved in.
"In my opinion, there probably ought to be some places where development isn't allowed, or at least through some regulatory process transfer the responsibility to those who are at risk, who have the most to lose," Dunford told the Deseret News.
Ray Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics, said the rise in wildland firefighting costs because of urban encroachment is a problem widely recognized, but it gets little discussion.
"Where the conversation gets stuck nationally on this is that people say, `Yes, it is a problem, but what do you do about it?'" he said.