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Wildfires are burning at higher elevations across the West

 a wildfire burns along a mountain range at night with orange smoke, and the lights of human buildings and streets in the foreground
Wildfires are burning higher into the mountains.

According to a recent study, fire danger has increased in the western U.S. over the past four decades. Moji Sadegh, assistant professor of civil engineering at Boise State University and one of the study’s authors, said fire weather (dry, hot and windy conditions that are favorable for the spread of wildfires) is intensifying everywhere in the U.S.

“That's the warming and drying trends that we are seeing. … But if you look at how, in different elevations, this fire weather is changing, we see that higher elevations are increasing at a higher rate compared to lower elevations,” Sadegh said.

From 1984 to 2017, median high-elevation fires have gone up over 800 feet. Sadegh said the increase in high-elevation fires is concerning because it may result in more fires burning over the crests of mountain ranges.

“Traditionally, when fires are moving away from human populations, which is lower elevations in the valleys, managers let them burn, right? They will hit the rocks they will hit the moist vegetation and they will stop — but now with the current behavior, they go up, they start burning and they go down and then it's the next population center,” Sadegh said.

Chris Delaney is Utah’s state fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management. He said early in the fire season, firefighters may try to drive a fire from the susceptible, grassy lowlands into the wetter higher elevations.

“Because the grass is still green, and it doesn't carry, right — when you see from an 8000-foot elevation down to 4000 and all those fuels are receptive, now we have a problem because the fuels are going to carry it all the way up to the top of the ridge and all the way down the other side,” Delaney said.

Sadegh said fighting high-elevation fires may also be more difficult due to the physical landscape.

“We're talking about rugged terrain which is really hard to fight fires, right? There are not roads, it's very dangerous for fire crews to be out there,” Sadegh said.

As fires spread upward in elevation, firefighting efforts may require limited, specialized resources like interagency hotshot hand crews — highly trained, skilled teams of firefighters and smokejumpers — who parachute from airplanes to fight wildfires in remote areas. Delaney said navigating how to allocate resources as critical fire weather increases and synchronizes across elevations will be a challenge.

“I think we're in a little bit of an uncharted territory. I think we're all kind of looking to see what the next shoe that will drop is. But what I can tell you is that not only are we prepared, … the agencies are working together,” Delaney said.

The most important thing, Delaney said, is to be safe and responsible when recreating outdoors.

“It doesn't matter how many firefighters we can bring into Utah … at times we're never going to have enough. What we really, truly need is the public's help … to stop starting those wildland fires,” Delaney said.

Sadegh said 84% of all wildfires in the United States are started by humans.

"All of us in the West and especially in the Intermountain West, we really like our recreation. But we’ve also we got to be very careful,” Sadegh said.

Fires caused by human activity are often closer to human settlements and therefore have the potential to be more destructive to property, Sadegh said.

Delaney has worked in fire management in Utah for 28 years and said wildfires are becoming an increasingly urban problem.

“Very rarely, especially in Utah now, do we see fires where there isn’t some sort of urban interface being impacted, whether that's people's primary homes, power infrastructure, power lines, gas lines, things like that. And so, what 20, 30 years ago was wild lands, we’re really what we're seeing is more urban interface and people's backyards,” Delaney said.

Sadegh said wildfires are not only becoming more common they are also becoming more destructive.

“So, we are entering an era that we cannot really just go around saying that this thing is not my problem. It's everyone's problem. If you live in the West, this is directly your problem. If you live in the East, this is indirectly your problem,” Sadegh said.

“The reality is, it's devastating to everybody. And that's why we ask for all public land users to be responsible, because it may not be your land. But it is going to impact you somehow,” Delaney said.

For more information about Utah wildfire management, visit

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.