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Brian Head Fire grows as red-flag warning continues

Blaze puts logging debate at center stage

PANGUITCH — The rapid spread of a wildfire torching more than 77 square miles in southern Utah could have been stalled by logging there, some Utah Republican officials contend.

And they likely are correct. In part.

True, dead pines fueled the fire near Brian Head that forced 1,500 people out of their homes and burned nearly 50,000 acres as of Tuesday night.

But hot, dry weather also fans flames. And it invites invasive bark beetles to prey on thirsty trees in the first place, experts say. Also in play is fire suppression — squelching small fires before they can burn enough to limit debris that would feed future blazes.

The upshot: Harvesting felled timber could help limit blazes, but it's not a magic bullet, said Mark Schwartz, a professor who studies predicting and preventing wildfires at the University of California, Davis.

When it comes to forest fires in the Western U.S., "you can't pin the blame entirely on any kind of federal policy about logging or not logging," Schwartz said Tuesday. "It's a general observable fact that there's been a combination of things."

On Monday, Rep. Mike Noel told reporters in Panguitch that federal restrictions and environmental lawsuits pulled the plug on timber operations in the region, creating fuel for fires as dead trees linger long after they were killed by pests.

"When we turned the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers," the Kanab Republican said, "we turned our history over."

Others, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and the conservative Sutherland Institute, agree that Utah could better control its federal acreage. The U.S. government manages two-thirds of Utah and large chunks of the now-scorched portions of Iron and Garfield counties.

"It wouldn't be as severe under state control," said Sutherland analyst Matt Anderson.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance sees it differently. The group said Monday the statements were misleading statement that climate change, drought, human activity and wind all play roles.

And beetle-bitten timber may not be all that profitable.

In 2013, a U.S. Forest Service economic analysis reported that the lumber could reap positive net revenues for the West Coast and Northern Rockies states with active timber markets. But the central Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, which have the most standing dead timber — would not see the same gain by harvesting the timber.

What's more, regulation is not the only foe of the logging industry. Canada has outcompeted U.S. loggers in recent years, and financial and housing crises since 2008 also took a toll on the industry.

At last estimate, the nation's largest fire in Brian Head caused an estimated $10 million in damage. It reached 49,626 acres Tuesday evening as red-flag weather was anticipated Wednesday for a third day in a row; it was 10 percent contained in the evening.

The blaze destroyed a chunk of JD Doyon's retirement home, a cabin which he said was valued at $500,000 and took him 14 years to build.

"It's devastating," said Doyon, a volunteer firefighter. He watched the blaze creep into his back yard and torch a chunk of his home, and used his emergency radio to call it in.

"It's amazing how much they've saved," said Doyon, praising the crews.

Teams were expected to try to strengthen the containment line Wednesday on the rocky, wooded south end of the fire despite lava fields there, authorities reported. They also were planning to douse areas across state Route 143 where winds pushed the flames. The road remained closed.

Firefighters made progress limiting the fire's spread on its northwest side, where timber gave way to stubbier sage and grass, and they set off a controlled fire nearby to set the perimeter.

Other teams also were doing safety checks on the road in Parowan Canyon.

The blaze that ignited June 17 has forced the evacuation of 600 homes in Upper Bear Valley, Panguitch Lake, Horse Valley, Beaver Dam, Castle Valley, Blue Springs, Rainbow Meadows, Mammoth Creek, Dry Lakes, Second Left Hand Canyon and Brian Head neighborhoods. Thirteen homes and eight outbuildings have been destroyed.

Contributing: Nicole Vowell