Utah is home to over 3.3 million people, many of whom have encountered natural disasters or been forced to evacuate due to them.
However, many Utah residents are unaware of the various types of natural disasters that can affect the state.
This article provides an overview of the common natural disasters in Utah, the most devastating disasters that have occurred in the state since 2000, and what residents can do to prepare.
Is Utah At Risk of Natural Disasters?
Compared to the rest of the United States, Utah has a low risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Utah has had 41 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 9 were declared major disasters.
Utah is also sometimes hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 22 separate $1-billion events have affected Utah. Most of these events were wildfires or droughts.
Worst Natural Disasters in Utah By Cost (Since 2000)
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion
- Summer-Fall 2018 Western Wildfires: $28.3 billion
- 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: $22.2 billion
- Fall 2020 Western Wildfires: $18.9 billion
- Spring-Fall 2002 Drought: $15.1 billion
Worst Natural Disasters in Utah By Deaths (Since 2000)
- 2021 Drought and Heat Wave: 229 deaths
- 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: 136 deaths
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: 123 deaths
- Summer-Fall 2018 Western Wildfires: 106 deaths
- Spring-Fall 2013 Drought and Heat Wave: 53 deaths
*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.
Most Common Natural Disasters in Utah
Utah is one of the highest-risk states in America for earthquakes. Several significant faults run through the state. The one with the most potential for damage is the Wasatch Fault, which is over 200 miles long and runs down the center of Utah.
Approximately 85% of Utah’s population lives near the Wasatch Fault. Many homes and buildings in Utah aren’t reinforced. To make matters worse, many were built on ancient lake beds, which have soft sediment that can amplify seismic waves. An estimated 185,000 buildings in the state are vulnerable – including some schools.
How Often Does Utah Have Earthquakes?
Utah experiences approximately 700 earthquakes each year. Most of these are low-magnitude and cannot be felt. Utah has approximately six earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater each year. The state can expect a damaging earthquake of magnitude 5.5 to 6.5 once every 10 to 50 years.
While it’s impossible to predict when an earthquake will occur, seismologists can predict when it is “due.” According to Steve Bowman of the Utah Geological Survey, there is a 57% chance of the Wasatch fault having a mag 6 earthquake in the next 50 years.
One of the worst earthquakes in Utah’s recent history occurred in March 2020. The mag 5.7 quake, luckily, didn’t cause many injuries or any fatalities, but it did cause power outages and approximately $62 million in building damages.
2. Heavy Snowfall and Winter Storms
Utah ranks #12 in the country for the most snowfall and #17 for the most snowfall days yearly. However, these rankings are a bit deceptive because they look at the state as a whole. Utah’s northern and central parts can average more than 100 inches of snow per year.
These areas tend to be sparsely populated, but some larger towns and cities in Utah get lots of snowfall: Cedar Hills gets an average of 64 inches of snowfall annually; Pleasant Grove gets 59 inches; Orem gets 55 inches; Taylorsville gets 52 inches.
Snowstorms and blizzards are not common in Utah but do sometimes occur. For example, an April 2022 snowstorm in Utah left many without power, and there were vehicle accidents due to icy road conditions.
Utah Winter Weather Stats
- Average snowfall per year: 41″
- Snowfall days per year: 46 days
- Coldest recorded temperature: -69°F in Peter’s Sink in 1985
- Record snowfall: 35″ in Silver Lake Brighton in 1964
Even though Utah doesn’t have many wildfires per year, the wildfires it does have tend to be significant. Because of this, Utah is one of the top 10 states regarding acres burned by wildfires. Since 2000, Utah has been affected by 9 separate billion-dollar wildfires and has had to declare disaster over 30 times because of wildfires.
Utah Wildfire Stats
- Acres burned in 2021: 60,863
- Number of fires in 2021: 1,085
- Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 1,153,355
Which Areas of Utah Are Most At-Risk for Wildfires?
There are nearly 1 million housing units. Many of these are located in high-risk areas for wildfires. An estimated 14% of all Utah properties are at high or extremely high risk for wildfires, and another 14% are at moderate risk.
Because of climate change, the risk of wildfires in Utah is growing. By 2050, an estimated 87% of all properties in the state will be at risk of wildfire.
The Utah counties with the highest concentration of properties at risk are:
There are also thousands of properties at risk in major cities in Utah, including 35 thousand in Salt Lake.
Largest Wildfire in Utah’s Recent History
The Milford Flat wildfire in 2007 was one of the largest wildfires in the state’s recent history. It had consumed more than 363,000 acres by the time it was extinguished.
4. Heat Waves and Droughts
Utah currently has approximately 15 dangerous or extremely dangerous heat days per year. By 2050, this number is expected to increase to 30 days per year. The National Weather Service defines a “dangerous” heat day as one where the heat index is 103F, and an “extremely dangerous” day has a heat index of 124F or above, which is considered unsafe for all people for any amount of time.
In addition to dangerous heat days, Utah is expected to see an increase in “Local Hot Days.” Local Hot Days are defined as “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature than an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.” Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.
Since many people in Utah don’t have air conditioning, increased temperatures – even when they aren’t considered “dangerous” – can have severe implications. Health problems like strokes increase, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur.
All parts of Utah are expected to see more Local Hot Days over the next few decades. However, Piute County is particularly at risk. In 2053, Piute County can expect 20 consecutive days of temperatures at or above 89.5℉.
Heat waves also increase drought conditions in Utah. This can devastate agricultural communities and put more strain on Utah’s already-scarce water resources.
Compared to the United States as a whole, Utah is not at high risk for flooding. However, floods do regularly occur in Utah. In springtime, river flooding occurs from heavy rains and snow melt.
Utah is particularly at risk for flash floods because of its unique geography. Burn scars from wildfires also put Utah at risk of flash floods.
From 2010 to 2020, the state had an average of 63 flash flood warnings per year. In 2021 alone, the state had more than 150 flash flood warnings. These flash floods are often deadly, like in September 2015 when a single event killed 9 people in Zion National Park.
Utah Flood Stats
- 113,100 properties at substantial risk in 2020
- 210,800 properties at risk by 2050
- 120,900 properties at substantial risk by 2050
- 6,600 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
- 300 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000
Which Areas of Utah Are Most At-Risk to Flooding?
Floods can occur in all parts of Utah, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Utah with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations).
- Parowan: 51%
- Harrisville: 44%
- Stansbury Park: 39%
- West Bountiful: 36%
- Springville: 36%
- North Ogden: 35%
- Lindon: 35%
- Heber: 35%
- South Salt Salt: 35%
- Centerville: 34%
In addition to these areas, there are many major cities and towns in Utah where thousands of properties are at risk. This includes over 15,500 properties in Salt Lake City, over 8,000 in Ogden, and over 4,500 in Millcreek.
Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is increasing in many parts of Utah. By 2050, an estimated 9% of all properties in Utah will be at substantial risk of flooding.