The summer solstice still weeks away, the summer wildfire season has begun early and in earnest. Already, crews in Utah have battled at least three significant fires that have scorched thousands of acres.
By all indications, it is just the beginning.
One of the driest winters on record has served to desiccate vast stretches of western rangeland. Populated areas are vulnerable too, after an abnormally wet spring last year led to more and denser vegetation — in other words, fuel.
It has set up as something of a perfect storm, according to conservation and forestry agencies, which are issuing strong warnings of continuing danger.
The warnings are important, not only to alert those of us who may live in areas of greater risk, but also to remind all of us that a large proportion of wildfires are human-caused.
A fast-moving fire in Tooele County in mid-May that consumed more than a thousand acres likely started as a result of sparks from a vehicle traveling a road through dried-out grasslands. Another fire in early May near the town of Toquerville in southwestern Utah was likely started by a man burning debris.
A large fire that posed a potential threat to subdivisions in the area of Hurricane in southeastern Utah was also human-caused, according to local authorities. And in Colorado, an 8,000-acre fire is being blamed on a camper using an outdoor stove.
Weeks before the fire season typically begins, the public has already spent millions of dollars fighting blazes that might have been averted, given more cautious human behavior.
While scientists process data related to climate change and the potentially elevated risks of wildfires and other dangers, the clear and present reality is that Utah and the rest of the West is in a period of abnormal hazard. And, as urban sprawl extends into more open lands, more people have become exposed to the wrath of runaway flames.
It is certainly true the vast majority of wildfires attributed to the acts of humans are the result of acts that are inadvertent. But the lack of intention does not excuse a lack of awareness or an appreciation of risk.
The climatological factors that have led to this year's incendiary conditions are beyond human control. What people can do is conform their behavior to the realities of the current situation — to make preparation, take precaution, and tread tenderly in those tinder-dry areas where the threat level is at the highest in years.
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