SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of Utah communities and thousands of state residents are a "spark away" from the danger of catastrophic wildfires, restrained in reducing their risk by federal agencies that aren't managing forests.

That charge — repeated multiple times in a legislative committee discussion Wednesday — underscored the plea made by lawmakers that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service step up oversight of the land the entities control in Utah.

"If you are going to be the landowner, the landlord, we look to you to for the responsibility in taking the lead," said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.

The panel discussion on wildfires, risk, federal agencies' roles and air quality took place during an interim meeting of the legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, which had a packed agenda dealing with everything from energy policy to bacterial poisoning caused by raw milk.

On wildfires, the tone was one of frustration, especially from lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who said entire landscapes are devastated because local entities are barred from responding.

"It is stupidity," Noel said, describing a decision that kept bulldozers in Iron and Kane counties at bay from extinguishing a wildfire over fear of the machines' impacts to the watershed.

"You burn a whole stinking forest down, you are not going to have a watershed," he said.

Rep. Jerry Anderson, R-Price, described impacts that continue to unfold from the 2012 Seeley that took out a blue ribbon fishery in Emery County's Huntington Creek and vanquished in an entire watershed. Flooding last month helped along from the wildfire's burn scar displaced 45 families, he added.

"There were resources available in the air less than 15 minutes away that could have put that (wildfire) out immediately," Anderson said. "Instead, we went on and caused millions of dollars of damage and even some deaths. … That is what happens when things like that go on and we don’t get the cooperation and the response that is needed."

Dave Whittekiend, forest supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said the agency has been able to work within a categorical exclusion rule that allows presuppression treatment projects of up to 3,000 acres, but wilderness areas remain off-limits, and roadless areas have constraints.

In his area, the agency has tripled the amount of timber harvest, Whittekiend added.

The Bureau of Land Management, too, shelled out $2.3 million for a state-of-the-art dispatch center at Point of the Mountain where Utah ponied up the land, helping to refine response by multiple agencies, said BLM Utah Director Juan Palma.

The late summer rains of August and September put a damper on the activity in Utah's 2014 wildfire season, which left just 21,000 acres burned — or one-ninth of the state's 10-year average, said Utah State Forester Brian Cottam.

Cottam's agency is working in conjunction with other state partners, counties and others to map risks of catastrophic wildfire and direct money on wildland fire suppression efforts.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said he'd like to see some sort of "red alert" system that accounts for risk and also takes into consideration the air quality impacts from the millions of acres that burn each year from forest fires.

"I am tired of dismissing this as if it does not matter," Ivory said. "With 6 million acres a year burning, we dismiss that as if it is not in the air that we are breathing."

Such an alert system, he added, would let people better assess the risk.

"There are communities that are one spark away from losing their watershed, losing their tourism," Ivory said.


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