SALT LAKE CITY — The state forester Tuesday blamed "stupid human tricks" for the "abysmally high" number of wildfires ignited by people this year in Utah.
There have been 397 human-caused fires on state and private land through early August, said Brian Cottam, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. In comparison, he said, the number in neighboring Nevada totaled 30 as of two weeks ago.
"Pardon me sir, there’s just more stupid human tricks that occurred this year," Cottam told the Utah Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee.
"That number is extremely high," he said, adding that all those blazes are preventable. "They do not need to happen."
Cottam listed fireworks, target shooting in restricted areas and exploding targets among the causes of the blazes. But the No. 1 cause, he said, is vehicles sparking fires along the roadway, often from dragging chains on trailers. Ditch burning on farms in the early spring also touches off many fires, he said.
Suppression costs on state and private land reached $18 million, Cottam said after the meeting.
More than half of Utah's firefighting costs — $10 million — went to the massive Brian Head Fire that charred 71,673 acres, destroyed 13 homes and forced about 1,500 people to evacuate the area. Authorities say a man burning weeds in the southern Utah ski town ignited the blaze.
In all, federal, state and local agencies spent about $40 million to fight the fire.
Cottam said the federal government would reimburse the state 75 percent or $7.5 million for the Brian Head Fire, but it could take years to get the money. The Utah forestry division is responsible for fighting fires on state and private land.
Were it not for that fire, the state's cost this year would be about average, he said.
"One bad decision just blows things way out of proportion," Cottam said.
In all, there have been more than 800 wildfires in the state this year, including those on federal land, he said. Most of them happened from the end of May to late July.
"Those seven weeks kind of ate our lunch and our budgets," Cottam said.
The state was scheduled to do more fuel reduction projects in the Brian Head area when the fire started. The Utah Legislature provides the state forestry division $2 million a year for those projects.
Cottam said that amounts to a "drop in the bucket" of what the agency could use to manage state and private land to prevent fires. He said the state can't do it alone and that private businesses also need to help cover the costs.