Utah experienced fewer wildfires than usual this summer, but the number of blazes will likely increase over time as a result of climate change, according to a local expert.
Michael Jenkins, Utah State University associate professor of disturbance/wildfire ecology, says there is good evidence that rising temperatures will boost the available fire "fuel load" by killing trees, particularly conifers. In addition, heat and low humidity are conducive to blazes.
"Given that the climate is warming, fuels are drying and it's stressing plants," Jenkins explained. "I think that has been reflected in the number of acres burned per year over the last 10 or maybe 20 years."
Jenkins also pointed to intensive firefighting practices that suppress blazes quickly, but boost the "fuel load" by sparing vegetation that would have burned. As a result, when fires do get out of control, they find plenty of shrubs, grasses and trees to feed them.
The situation can get particularly bad when flammable invasive plants take over an area.
In central Utah's Milford Flat, extensive cheat grass provided perfect conditions for the largest blaze in state history. During July 2007, the wildfire consumed 363,052 acres or 567 square miles and destroyed two structures. A pair of motorcyclists died in a crash caused by smoke billowing over I-15.
Studies from the U.S. Geological Survey have shown that fire can further enhance "the establishment and spread of cheat grass" by killing perennial plants.
All of these factors point to a future of bigger, more costly fires; but while the overall trend is up, Utah has gotten off relatively easy in 2010.
The National Interagency Fire Center reports that there have been 904 blazes this year, burning 12,302 acres. By comparison, 112,753 acres were scorched in 2009 and 620,730 during 2007's record-breaking fire season.
Currently, there are seven fires scattered across the state, including one near Herriman that began after machine-gun exercises at nearby Camp Williams.
"For as dry as it's been, it's been an unusually calm fire season," said Jenkins, who theorized that a low number of lightning strikes is behind the statistic. Roughly two-thirds of the fires in the Intermountain area are lightning caused.
Jenkins added that homeowners who live near an "wildland/urban interface" should take steps to protect their property by using fire-resistant building materials and creating a vegetation-free space around the structure.