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Utah official criticizes 'stupid' wildfire management decisions

FILE- In this July 5, 2018, file photo, smoke rises from a wildfire near Strawberry Reservoir in Utah. This year is projected to be among Utah's worst in terms of land burned. Estimates show more than $47 million have been spent on Utah's wildfires so far
FILE- In this July 5, 2018, file photo, smoke rises from a wildfire near Strawberry Reservoir in Utah. This year is projected to be among Utah's worst in terms of land burned. Estimates show more than $47 million have been spent on Utah's wildfires so far this year.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's fire season has weeks to go but has already burned through $75 million, 186,000 acres and destroyed close to 100 homes.

"It is unacceptable," said state forester Brian Cottam.

"It has been a horrible fire season in the state of Utah, extremely difficult for citizens in the state and we have weeks to go," Cottam said.

Cottam participated in a Thursday forum at the state Capitol on wildland fires sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, with the intent to get ideas from experts and bring them back to Congress.

While Cottam and Dave Whittekiend, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor, praised working relationships at the top and on the ground among agencies and firefighters, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said somewhere in the middle, there's a big problem.

Cox pointed to a 2012 plume of smoke that he said a Forest Service official decided to let burn. It erupted into the Seeley Fire, which cost $9 million to quell and continues to cause immense problems with the watershed in Emery County.

"It was a stupid decision," he said. "And we paid for that years and years after that."

"Someone made a terrible decision without consulting with state and local officials," Cox emphasized.

This year, too, locals spotted another plume of smoke in the Manti-La Sal Forest and learned it was a Forest Service-prescribed burn in late May or early June — at a time the state is suffering from one of the worst droughts in generations, Cox said.

FILE - In this aerial photo, burned down structures are seen as a wildfire continues to burn east of Strawberry Reservoir, in Wasatch County, Utah, on Tuesday, July 3, 2018.
FILE - In this aerial photo, burned down structures are seen as a wildfire continues to burn east of Strawberry Reservoir, in Wasatch County, Utah, on Tuesday, July 3, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"Guess what? They were completely shocked when three days later it jumped the fire lines," Cox said. "Somewhere in the middle, someone behind a desk is making really terrible decisions."

Aside from the brief venting, which drew applause from local county leaders in the room, the majority of participants in the room said the No. 1 priority in the prevention of catastrophic wildfires has to be strategic thinning of trees, undergrowth and more timber harvests.

Whittekiend and Jim Lutz, an associate professor of forest ecology at Utah State University, stressed the need for steady, reliable supply chain for timber products with mills and other related timber-industries.

"The dead wood is a liability when it needs to be an asset," Whittekiend said.

"We have 400,000 acres of fuels treatments that have cleared (the review process) and are ready to be put on the ground," he said.

He added that ideally, even more thinning of forests and clearing of beetle-killed trees could be accomplished.

"We recognize we have landscapes that are out of whack and need work," he said. "We need more authority."

Mitt Romney, who has penned a couple of opinion pieces on wildfires and visited the scene of the Dollar Ridge Fire near Strawberry Reservoir earlier this summer, also participated.

"One thing I think we have to be serious about is reducing the fuel load," said the GOP Senate candidate running to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We have to have better forestry management. That doesn't mean clear-cutting, it means taking out the dead trees."

FILE - Bikers make their way to the shoreline trail in Salt Lake City on Thursday, August 23, 2018.
FILE - Bikers make their way to the shoreline trail in Salt Lake City on Thursday, August 23, 2018.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Romney also spoke of the need for strategic grazing and regional fire centers with the type of equipment that can be deployed quickly to get an early start on fires.

Bishop said he convened the forum in order to develop specific regulatory fixes he can take back to Congress to incorporate into the Farm Bill, which includes some aspects of the failed Resilient Federal Forest Act.

Cox stressed that the devastating effects of the wildfire season throughout the West ought to be on everyone's mind and priority to solve.

"If you truly care about the environment, you should care about this topic," he said. "We've experienced the worst air quality of my lifetime this year, and it has nothing to do with industry."