SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah hasn’t had a devastating wildfire in recent years like its neighboring states thanks to a mix of luck, favorable weather and prevention, the state forester said Tuesday.
“We’ve probably been fortunate in Utah,” Forester Brian Cottam said. “You can look across the borders at any of the states in the West and they’ve truly had catastrophic fires — hundreds of homes lost, lives lost.”
Cottam made the comments Tuesday after giving Utah lawmakers on a natural resources committee a brief update about how the agency is working to cut the risk of large-scale fires.
The Legislature set aside $1.9 million last year and $2.5 million this year for projects such as clearing or reducing brush and other fuel on lands near homes. That’s in addition to various regional and national grants that are also helping to pay for fire prevention or mitigation projects, Cottam said.
Areas around the state are at risk for major wildfires, he said, but Utah is working on a computer mapping system that will allow officials to see which areas face the highest risk as weather conditions change and target prevention efforts.
State officials hope to have that ready by the end of the year.
Utah has had several relatively mild fire seasons since 2012, when wildfires burned thousands of acres across the state and cost more than $50 million to fight. That included a 5,500-acre fire near Saratoga Springs that cost $2.1 million and forced thousands to temporarily flee their homes.
In addition to state efforts to thin forests and treat tinderbox lands, Cottam told reporters that homeowners play a big role in reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires by limiting the amount of flammable plants and materials around their property.
“The more work that we do on the ground, the better our luck is,” he said.
Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said fire officials this year are warning the public that it’s against the law to fly a drone over a wildfire.
Private drones used by people seeking pictures of a fire can collide with low-flying airplanes and helicopters involved in the firefighting effort. When officials spot a drone, they have to ground their aircraft or risk colliding with the unmanned vehicle or having it sucked into an engine, Curry said.
“If they are grounded, then they’re not able to do their job and we risk lives and homes because somebody wants to take some pictures,” Curry said.
Drones have been a problem on several fires in California this year, and in Utah, fire officials had drones flying over wildfires several times in 2014 and 2013, he said.
Curry said anyone flying a drone over a wildfire can face state charges, including a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail, in addition to possible federal charges and sanctions from the Federal Aviation Administration.