2022 Aspen Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Human-caused wildfires are growing. So is demand for fire investigators

Burnt trees Pack Creek.png
KZMU/Molly Marcello
Burnt trees near the Pack Creek day use area, where fire investigators determined a 9,000 acre fire was started in June 2021. Lately, Utah’s investigators have been busier than ever.

Utah is experiencing more wildfires in the midst of drought and high temperatures.

More of those blazes are being caused by people as the state's population grows.

The job of fire investigators has never been more important. They track down the spark that can lead to prosecutions, and their work provides crucial data for studying fire causes.

This spring, volunteers were hard at work near the La Sal mountains in eastern Utah, installing steel netting to capture sediment in Pack Creek to prevent flooding after a massive fire burned nearly 9,000 acres in the area last year.

Workers were just downstream from a day use area where someone’s abandoned campfire sparked the blaze.

We know that much because of work from Utah’s fire investigators.

“Pretty much all the land management agencies investigate 100 percent of their human-caused fires,” says Nick Howell who has worked with Utah’s Bureau of Land Management as a fire investigator for around 14 years.

Howell says that when a fire investigator arrives at a scene, which can be challenging itself in rural and remote areas, they get to work analyzing burn patterns and vectors, macro and micro-scale indicators.

“So basically what that means is when a fire burns, it leaves traces of where it originated. We have a standard methodology that we follow as fire investigators and most of the time we’re able to pinpoint down to the square inch where the fire started,” says Howell.

Molly Marcello
Volunteers are seen near the La Sal mountains installing steel netting to capture sediment in Pack Creek to prevent flooding after a massive fire burned nearly 9,000 acres in the area in 2021.

Fire investigators in the state have never been busier. Howell says the numbers depend on the year, 2020 was especially bad, but the trend is not only more wildfires but more that are human caused.

So far this season about two-thirds of all fires were started by people, either through negligence or just bad luck.

For investigators, it’s not only about who caused a fire, but what caused it.

“That statistic is important as well. And that’s what goes into our fire prevention programs,” says Howell.

That information helps authorities know where to focus educational efforts.

For example, those signs on highways warning about hanging chains? They are the result of investigators finding that sparks from those chains cause fires.

“What they’ve put in place over the last few years is a very comprehensive data collection system that we can drill down now and determine, really with a great deal of granularity, what’s causing these fires [and] how big the fires are getting,” says Jim Winder, chief investigator with the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

He says this data is also important for tracking new trends. For example, as gun ownership in Utah has increased, so have fires caused by target shooting.

“Many people, and I encounter them on a regular basis, don’t believe that a 223 rifle fired into a stack of tires can start a fire,” says Winder. But he says it does.

When education doesn’t work, investigators partner with law enforcement to track down who caused a wildfire.

And when someone flees a scene, or doesn’t realize they started a blaze, Winder says they’re pretty good at finding them.

“I don’t want to go into too much detail but you can imagine we use a variety of resources and, in my opinion, we’re highly successful at locating people even in remote areas that have committed these kinds of crimes,” says Winder.

At a press conference in July with the Jacob City Fire still burning in the background, Utah Governor Spencer Cox warned Utahns: “You will be held responsible if you start a fire.”

A suspect was arrested in that blaze for reckless burning and reckless endangerment.

Winder says to think of it as a hit-and-run. If you start a fire, it will be much better for you to report it right away.

”A lot of the fires I investigate, I’ll be honest with you, they’re stupid human tricks. They’re people doing things they really ought not be doing and they’re placing all of us at risk and they’re costing taxpayers significant amounts of money,” says Winder.

Becoming a fire investigator is a lengthy process. It takes courses and a mentorship program, learning the latest fire science which is constantly updated. The process can take up to five years.

“It’s a very interesting and challenging field and takes a lot of time and effort to be proficient at it,” says Winder.

He says there’s around 14 investigators currently in the state. But there’s a demand for more.

“Last year, we had 1,300 fires in the state of Utah. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of those are human caused. You do the math. By the time you extrapolate back the number of criminal prosecutions, we’re dealing with hundreds of cases [per] year,” says Winder.

Nick Howell with the BLM explains that fire investigator work isn’t yet full time.

“We don’t have people that solely investigate wildfires. Fire investigation for the land management agencies is a collateral duty. There’s a day job associated with the investigators,” says Howell.

Agencies rely on firefighters to supplement their training for investigations. But he’s heard that Nevada has one full-time investigator. And he thinks Utah may head in that direction.

“That is part of our regular conversations on how to appropriately staff qualified and trained fire investigators, to not only meet the demands of today but to meet the demands of the future as our communities continue to grow exponentially,” says Howell.

It’s a conversation that is getting more desperate.

Meanwhile, although investigators found what caused that Pack Creek fire outside of Moab, they don’t know who caused it.

That will take more work.

This story from KZMU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Justin Higginbottom works for KZMU in Moab, Utah. Justin joined KZMU News in 2021 as a reporter. His first journalism gig was at a newspaper in Salt Lake City. After that he moved to Cambodia to work for an English-language daily. He lived across Asia and the Middle East, writing features on culture and conflict, before coming back home to Utah.