These Natural Disasters Can Occur in Utah! Are You Prepared?

Natural disasters in Utah

Utah is unarguably one of the greatest outdoor states in the US boasting a four-season climate.

During most of the year, you can hike your way through its 5 national parks and relish in all of its natural wonders. Every county in the state has at least a part of a national forest. 

In the wintertime, you can visit any of their 14 world-class ski resorts located throughout the state. They claim to be the home of the “greatest snow on Earth” — we’ll let you decide if they’re right. In any case, don’t be surprised to see the locals shoveling snow in sandals and cargo shorts.

Utahans are extremely self-sufficient. It’s likely that most of them have large stockpiles of emergency food, especially hard red wheat.

On average, Utahns marry younger than any other state and have more kids than any other state. The average number of children per household is 4 or more.

They have the country’s most charitable people, ranking first in volunteer rates, first in the percentage of income that is donated to charity, and first in the average contributions to charity.  They also have the lowest consumption of alcohol per capita.

The Beehive State is an incredible place to visit! Its scenic landscapes come at a price, however, as its location and topography make it prone to several natural disasters.

What natural disasters does Utah have?

Utah’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, severe storms, winter storms, extreme heat, and drought. Other less significant disasters include landslides, earthquakes, and power outages.

Between 1953 and 2019, Utah declared 38 major disasters, of which wildfires and floods happened the most according to FEMA.

1. Wildfires

One of Utah’s major natural disaster risks is wildfires. With an estimated 800 to 1,000 wildfires occurring in the Beehive State annually, it is considered to be one of the most fire-prone states in the country.

The largest recorded fire in Utah’s history was the Milford Flat Fire that began on July 6, 2007. The fire was ignited by lightning and rapidly grew due to the strong force of the winds. In about 11 days, the fire had consumed over 363,000 acres.

The combination of weather conditions, temperature, natural fuel sources, precipitation (or lack thereof), dry vegetation, and human negligence are all contributing factors to the rapid increase and growth of wildfires.

With respect to wildfire prevention, it’s necessary to do your part. Abide by the government’s restriction orders when it comes to residential open burning, burn permits, and explosive targets. When cooking with fire, never leave a flame unattended. And if you see a fire, always report it immediately.

When it comes to protecting your home, you should create defensible space. Remove dead shrubs and branches that hang over the roof. Also, clear your yard periodically from things that can add fuel to the fire.

Read our complete list of wildfire mitigation tips and suggestions here.

2. Floods

Floods, particularly flash floods, are Utah’s most destructive type of disaster. The risk comes primarily as a result of rapid snowmelt, long periods of drought, high-intensity storms, slow drainage, collapsing dams, levee failure, burn scars, and overflowing rivers.

One of the worst floods in Utah’s recent history occurred on September 12, 2012, when the Laub Reservoir Dam collapsed. It inundated homes, businesses, roads, golf courses, and other infrastructure in St.George, Ivins, and Santa Clara. The overall damage was estimated to be $3.9 million.

When it comes to floods in the Beehive State, some officials say that it’s not a matter of if, but when. In other words, prepare for one to occur regardless of where you live in Utah, and do not wait for authorities to issue a warning call.

In the case of the Laub Dam failure of 2012, it wasn’t deemed a high hazard until shortly before it collapsed. In fact, it had been inspected five months prior to the rupture at which point it “appeared to be just fine.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Your first step in becoming prepared for a flood is to determine the hazard risk in your community. Due to the ever-changing natural topography and the other contributing factors mentioned above, your risk level may change year to year.

The second step is to create an action plan that includes a list of family contacts, a meeting place (in case you become separated), an evacuation plan, important documents, valuables, and enough food, water, and gear to last you at least three days. Our Family Plan guides you through each of these steps if you haven’t yet completed them

During periods of precipitation, you can expect creeks, rivers, and dams to be more full than usual. Stay away from those areas, especially if there’s a risk of overflow or possible levee damage.

Never touch or attempt to cross floodwaters or you could risk becoming exposed to contaminants, or worse, drowning. This guide highlights mitigation tips to protect your home from possible flooding and how to stay safe in the midst of one.

3. Winter Storms

Utah is covered in tall mountains- several of them reaching far above 13,000 ft in elevation. With peaks at that altitude, snowfall is practically a given.

Southeast of Salt Lake City lies the Cottonwood Canyon, a mountain range that is believed to be one of the snowiest places in the world. The Alta mountain receives approximately 550 inches of snow year-round. The rest of the state, however, averages between 15 and 75 inches, depending on the location.

Steep mountains and weak snowpack provide two key ingredients for the development of avalanches, to which Utah has grown very familiar. Not only are they a constant threat, but they have become Utah’s deadliest natural hazard. In the 2020-2021 winter season alone, 356 avalanches were recorded in which several people died.

Utah experiences other harsh winter weather, including extremely cold weather, heavy snowfall, blizzards, and occasional freezing rain. One of the most notable blizzards occurred on January 1949 when a three-day blizzard left Utahns buried in up to 10 feet of snow. Temperatures dropped to -25°F (in some places it got as cold as -45°F) and many people lost power. Schools and businesses were forced to shut down. It took months for the state to recover.

Winter weather poses many risks, including steps effects of freezing weather on our bodies and the slick roads that we have to drive on our daily commute. Avoid doing outdoors or nonessential travel during blizzards or periods of severe winter weather. It’s oftentimes best to shelter in place until the storm clears out.

If you must go out, be sure to wear appropriate winter clothing and keep an emergency kit in your vehicle with all the winter essentials. Learn which essential items we recommend here.

4. Severe Storms

Utah has occasional severe thunderstorms. Although they can occur any time of year, they’re most common between May through August when the summer temperatures provide an ideal climate for the development of such storms. Some of the common storms experienced in the state are high gusty winds, periods of heavy rainfall, hail,

Lightning is the state’s second-deadliest natural disaster. An estimated 200,000 cloud-to-ground strikes occur in Utah each year. Since the 1950s, there have been approximately 67 fatalities and 161 injuries due to lightning strikes.

Severe storms cause major disruptions to transportation and utilities, as well as damage to infrastructure. Lightning is also one of the primary causes of wildfires in the state. It goes without saying that thunderstorms are extremely powerful and dangerous.

During severe storms, find a building where you can take shelter until the storm passes. Stay away from the windows, since lightning can be strong enough to strike a person indoors. Once the storm is over (approximately 30 minutes after the last thunderclap or lightning strike is seen), it should be okay to resume outdoor activities. Learn more storm safety tips here.

5. Extreme Heat and Drought

Much of Utah is desert land, therefore summer temperatures are often high. The average during the summer is between 85°F and 100°F, depending on where you’re located.

Every year, there’s a risk of extended hot days, in which heat warnings are issued. Over 55,000 Utahns are vulnerable to extreme heat, meaning that they can experience heat-related illnesses due to prolonged exposure. Although there is low humidity in the state, some studies suggest the possibility of muggier summers as a result of rising dew point temperatures.

Drought is another major problem in the Beehive State. As of the writing of this article, the drought monitor shows that 57.2% of Utah is in the D4 tier (exceptional drought), 33% is in the D3 tier (extreme drought), 7% is in the D2 tier (severe drought), 2.6% is in the D1 tier (moderate drought), and the remaining 0.2% is in the D0 tier (abnormally dry).

Drought can affect the state’s water supply, irrigation systems, vegetation, agriculture, pastures for animals, air quality, soil quality, and increase the chances of wildfires.

In times of drought, it’s important to conserve water. Prepare for extremely hot weather temperatures by learning how to stay cool without electricity (click here for tips and tricks!) as well as knowing the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to get help.

6. Landslides

Mountainous terrain poses a risk of landslides, mudslides, and avalanches. In Utah specifically, they’re expected because of the terrain and other contributing factors like wildfire burn scars and precipitation.

The most common types of landslides in Utah are slides (also known as debris avalanche), rockfalls (free-falling rocks or the movement of rocks at a precipice), and debris flow (a fast-moving downhill flow of water, rocks, soil, and other organic matter).   

One of the largest landslides in Utah’s recent history was the Bingham Canyon Landslide that occurred at the 107-year-old-mine on April 10, 2003, in which two rock avalanches released approximately 100 cubic yards of debris and triggered 16 small earthquakes. Thanks to interferometric radar technology, the slide was detected a few hours prior and all staff members were evacuated, so luckily no one was injured. 

In the majority of cases, pre-existing landslides increase the likelihood that another landslide will occur in the same location years later. Even if a slope is considered ‘dormant,’ it is no guarantee that it won’t be activated later on. It’s important to stay in the know and listen to local authorities if there’s evidence of a landslide occurring in your area.

Pay attention to the terrain around you and learn the warning signs of landslides, such as forward-leaning trees and crackling noises. If you suspect a landslide is going to occur, find higher ground immediately. If you live in an area with a moderate to high risk of landslides, check out this article for mitigation tips.

7. Earthquakes

Utah has over 200 active faults, some of which have the potential to generate an earthquake with a 6.5 to 7.5 magnitude. The state’s most active and dangerous fault is the Wasatch Fault, which is a series of smaller faults that extend from Malad City (Southern Idaho) to Fayette (Central Utah) paralleling the Wasatch mountain range. 

Some sources estimate that over 95% of Utahns live in an area that is prone to earthquakes, and 2.5 million of them live within 30 miles of a major fault.

Earthquakes are sudden and will take us by surprise. In order to become prepared, it would be a great idea to do a walk-through of your home to inspect for any vulnerable items that may fall during a shaker. Secure large items to the wall, or move them to lower shelves to prevent extensive damage.

As for you and your family’s safety, do periodic drills and identify safe places where you can take immediate shelter within your home if you have to drop, cover, and hold on at any given moment. Check out this guide on earthquake preparedness for a complete list of safety dos and don’ts.

8. Tornadoes 

Tornados are relatively rare in Utah but not uncommon altogether. In a given year, the state receives an average of 2 tornadoes, ranging anywhere between F0 and F3 strength. There have been 11 recorded F2 (or greater) tornados since 1943.

One of the most notable tornadoes to strike Utah occurred on August 11, 1999, in Salt Lake City. An F2 tornado of 115+ mph with hail traveled approximately 4.25 miles over a period of 14 minutes, destroying nearly a thousand trees, damaging hundreds of homes and buildings, injuring over a hundred people, and killing one. The damages were estimated to be $172 million (1999 USD).

Tornadoes can develop quickly and catch people by surprise. Learn the characteristics of rotating cloud formations that have the potential to turn into tornadoes. If you see one forming, take cover in a secure shelter immediately or if you’re in a car, drive in the opposite direction of the twister. Learn how to stay safe during a tornado here.

9. Power Outages

As advanced as our technology seems to be, our electrical systems are highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Each of the disasters mentioned in this article can cause a power outage lasting from minutes to hours to days.

Prepare for a power outage by getting the supplies you need to charge at least minor appliances— here you will find several recommendations. Then, test out your gear to ensure you know how to use it prior to a blackout.

Download and print the checklists found in this guide. It would be a good idea to keep those checklists with your emergency kit so you can review the safety procedures whenever you need to.

10. Volcanoes

Most geologists agree that there are no active volcanoes in Utah, however, a recent study from the Utah Geological Survey mentioned that “Earthquakes in the Black Rock Desert— the youngest volcanic field in Utah— are rare, and capturing the seismic recordings from these earthquakes provides a glimpse into the volcanic system of the Black Rock Desert that, while not showing any signs of erupting, is still active.”

In any case, I thought this information was worth mentioning since there are many people who wonder.  

Utah has three main types of volcanoes: the cinder cone (example: Diamond Cinder Cone in Washington County), the shield volcano (example: Cedar Hill in Box Elder County), and the stratovolcano (example: Mount Belknap in Piute County).

In recent years, a supervolcano was found in the southwestern region of Utah. The Wah Wah Springs supervolcano is estimated to be 30 times larger than Yellowstone, and it is believed to have erupted ages ago.

Thankfully, you can rest easy knowing that there are no signs of any of these volcanoes erupting again (anytime soon).

Natural disaster resources for Utah

Utah is a beautiful state with lots of natural resources, and unfortunately natural hazards too. We encourage you to take advantage of the following resources to assist you in your disaster preparedness efforts.

  • Thanks to modern technology, weather warnings can now be sent to your mobile device. The NOAA weather app is one of the best resources for real-time weather alerts. Download the app for free and keep all notifications turned on. Of course, in order to receive the updates, you must also keep your phone charged.

  • If you’re looking for disaster-specific information and preparedness guidance, look no further than here. Each of our guides includes unique safety tips and mitigation strategies to help you become resilient through any disaster- including pandemics and civil unrest. At the end of each guide, there are downloadable checklists that we recommend you download and keep for future use in your emergency binder. 

  • Growing with like-minded individuals in your community is effective in helping you become prepared for disasters and emergencies. The Community Emergency Response Team is a great place to get free training from local law enforcement professionals. Find your CERT group here.

  • Communities become dependent on one another in the aftermath of a disaster. If you are part of an organization or have a business that can donate supplies or resources to people in need, you may want to join Utah’s VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). VOAD works to determine the immediate needs of disaster-inflicted communities and will reach out to those who may have a surplus of resources.

  • For information on recovering from a disaster in Utah, visit Utah's Department of Public Safety and Emergency Management.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Utah’s most common disasters.

Be sure to share this article with someone who you think may enjoy it too!

Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!