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In our opinion: A burning West needs the best ideas to tame its fires

Flames of a wildfire rise near Duchesne, Utah, Thursday, July 5, 2018. (Ravell Call/The Deseret News via AP)
Flames of a wildfire rise near Duchesne, Utah, Thursday, July 5, 2018. (Ravell Call/The Deseret News via AP)
Ravell Call, The Deseret News

Much of the Western United States, including Utah, is experiencing an unprecedented rash of forest and range fires. The blazes already have taken the lives of at least 10 people, killed an undetermined number of wildlife and livestock, destroyed homes, disrupted the lives of untold numbers of residents and fouled the air. And experts say the “fire season” has at least another month to run.

As often happens when tragedy strikes, fingers of blame are out and pointing, especially among those looking for campaign issues.

Congressman Rob Bishop from Utah blames the U.S. Senate which, he says, has yet to even consider House-passed forest management legislation.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney blames the government in general for not properly managing forest and range lands, including controlled burns, increased logging “to thin forests and to remove dead timber” and a high-tech early warning system to spot fires.

Romney’s Democratic opponent, Jenny Wilson, says that while she supports better land management and early warning systems, the primary culprit is global climate change.

Further, the latest research shows that more than 80 percent of wildfires are human-caused, which means that careless members of the general public must share some culpability.

It’s human nature to find the guilty. As an old Idaho farmer once said, “You can’t swing a horse’s tail without hitting somebody to blame.” But rather than focusing on who or what is to blame, leaders must concentrate on finding solutions. And the people cited above have some good ideas.

There is no question it’s hotter and drier than it has been in recent years. There is plenty of debate on how much people are to blame, but just about everyone agrees that human activity has some impact on the climate. As such, states should do what they can to be environmentally responsible and promote sensible environmental stewardship.

Logging and thinning forests and rangeland will work in some areas but not in others. Where it is viable and feasible, land managers ought to be doing it. Leaving everything to nature in every case is not sound management. It not only is possible but necessary for opposing sides on this issue to reach an accommodation.

Using “early warning systems” to detect nascent fires makes good sense. The federal government already puts spotters in towers to keep an eye out for fires. Arming these men and women with long-range thermal imaging cameras would be a good next step. The same technology could be used in unmanned locations and monitored remotely. Costs for such equipment vary widely and there is a lot of competition in the thermal imaging space.

Rep. Bishop is correct in calling out his Senate colleagues for not taking the time to consider legislation that would promote better land management.

Fire ecologist Jennifer Balch at the University of Colorado says the latest research shows that humans start 84 percent of forest fires. That being the case, everyone should take extra precaution to prevent a good number of the blazes.

There is no single solution, no proverbial silver bullet to deal with this challenge. But employing good ideas and combining the best resources, regardless of their source, can go a long way toward dampening the devastating effects of the next fire season.