More than half of wildfires in 2018 were human-caused, and as officials look toward a potentially bad fire season in 2019, they’re encouraging Utahns to do their part in reducing human-caused fires.

A new campaign, SparkChange, encourages people to sign a wildfire prevention pledge, which can be accessed at http://sparkchange.utah.gov. In 2018, 204,028 acres were burnt by human-caused fires, compared to a five-year average of 123,132 acres. Last year, a total of 486,063 acres burned from a combination of lightning- and human-caused fires, compared to a five-year average of 178,437 acres per year.

The total cost of fighting those fires was $150 million, with the state of Utah’s portion of that about $42 million, according to Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

“Last year’s fire season was record breaking,” said Jason Curry, public information officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The number of human-caused fires seems to be growing each year, said Brett Ostler, fire management officer for UDFFSL. Last year saw 696 human-caused fires. Ostler said he’d be happy if they could get that number down to under 200 this year.

Ostler encouraged people to go online and sign the pledge.

“The pledge will give people the opportunity to look and see what they can do (to prevent fires),” Ostler said, including not leaving fires that are too hot to touch, or leaving fires unattended.

Though Gov. Gary Herbert was ill and could not attend the press event as planned on Thursday, he released a statement saying that Utah can be a safer place for everyone if people do small things to prevent wildfires.

“I believe we can lessen the risk of wildfires by acting proactively and making small changes to our behavior,” Herbert said in the statement. “I hope Utahns will join me in pledging to prevent wildfires this year.”

The 2019 fire season in high mountain areas, particularly areas above 7,000 feet, is expected to be delayed by a wetter-than-average winter, according to Basil Newmerzhycky, meteorologist for the Bureau of Land Management. Utah had anywhere from 200 to 300 percent of normal precipitation, especially across the southern half of the state, and snowpack is currently at 150 to 160 percent across the state.

The large amounts of precipitation, particularly in the southern portion of the state, mean areas that typically have patchy grass at best now are covered in thick, green grass. When that dries out, it creates the potential for large, fast-moving fires.

“That’s a big concern of ours,” Newmerzhycky said.

And just because the fire season will be delayed at higher elevations because of high snowpack doesn’t mean there won’t be a fire season at all.

“When we get into August, all the areas will be dry,” Newmerzhycky said. “A normal fire season here in Utah means more than 100,000 acres burned.”

The lightning-caused Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires in September caused the evacuation of more than 5,000 people from the cities of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge and burned more than 120,000 acres.

Katie England covers local government, the environment and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

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