SALT LAKE CITY -- The director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands says the number of fires in the Beehive State this season has been less than anticipated and far below 2012 levels.
At last count, 446 fires have been reported this year in the Beehive State, with about 18,000 acres burned, Dick Buehler told a legislative commission Tuesday. Approximately 56 percent of those blazes have been caused by people.
In 2012, approximately 1,542 fires destroyed just short of a half-million acres.
"It's really amazing that we haven't had more," Buehler said of fire loss this season.
He said 90 percent of the acres burned to date were ignited by lightning-caused fires.
He credited the efforts of firefighters across the state in responding quickly to blazes and keeping losses to a minimum. He also credited the training efforts of the state in working with local departments.
Even with the good news so far, however, he said existing conditions signal some potentially troubling times in the future.
"The forests are in the worst condition I've ever seen, and the ability to manage the forest is being reduced," Buehler told lawmakers.
He said there are implications in not letting nature do its thing and in living in the second-driest state in the United States. He said development also has increased the danger of fires.
Appearing before the Federal Funds Commission to talk about federal funding, Buehler also said sequestration and the potential loss of federal money will have an impact on state efforts to fight fires.
Most of that funding comes from the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, he said.
Buehler said federal funds have assisted state officials in fuel mitigation efforts to reduce potential fire dangers. He said the federal government has provided between $860,000 and $2.4 million a year to facilitate that effort.
"We're concerned. We see the writing on the wall, and we will see reductions in the amount of federal funds coming to the state, coming from these sources," Buehler said.
He said the U.S. Forest Service spent 40 percent of its budget last year on fire suppression, borrowing from other programs, without reducing revenue to the states. He said that same approach is unlikely in the future.
Buehler said state officials will do training with local firefighters this year, thanks to $75,000 in federal funds.
However, it will be the last year the state will conduct this training. He said that is one of the immediate impacts of sequestration going forward.
Federal funds are also used to help communities develop fire risk-management plans, the state official said.
The commission has been given the task of looking at the potential impact of the loss of federal funds on local and state programs.
Pressed by Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, to weigh the potential impact of a loss of 40 percent in federal funds, the state fire official predicted the federal government would probably eliminate funding for fire suppression or mitigation efforts altogether.
"It would have a devastating impact on the states, unless the states picked up the funding," Buehler said. "We'd be sitting in a pretty situation if we had a year like last year."