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Romney readying proposal to battle rising wildfires like an enemy of the state

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, talks with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox after a press conference announcing Romney’s plan to establish a wildfire commission, to review national wildfire policies and make recommendations to Congress, at the Neff’s Canyon trailhead in Millcreek on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. A recent wildfire in Neff’s Canyon is 100% contained but still smoldering.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

MILLCREEK — While Utah’s 2020 wildfire season may be feeling tame compared to the infernos that have burned through California, Oregon and Washington, the state has still had more than its share of scorchers so far with more than 1,400 fires burning over 300,000 acres and draining $55 million from state coffers.

Jason Curry with the Utah Department of Natural Resources said Utah had wildfires burning every day — 156 straight — from April 18 to Sept. 20 this year. And, Utah wildfires have been increasing every year, with total fires up by about 100 per year since 2015 when 900 wildfires were reported. Nationally, 44,000 wildfires have burned this year, up from 40,000 in 2019.

At a press event Thursday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, announced he is set to propose legislation that would create a new federal commission tasked with identifying effective strategies to address catastrophic wildfires, before they start.

Romney cited the amount of money and planning dedicated to maintaining national defense efforts as a contrast for how little, historically, has been invested in preempting wildland blazes.

“Do you know how much we spend to protect ourselves from a foreign enemy that might attack us and kill us?” Romney asked. “A trillion dollars a year. When we use those monies, we wisely bring in all the best minds ... in the country to see how we can most effectively protect ourselves.

“When it comes to wildfires what are we doing? All going different directions.”

Romney’s proposal looks to hone those efforts with a new 25-member panel, the Wildland Fire Mitigation & Management Commission, which would be jointly managed by two cabinet-level appointees, the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, as well as the administrator of Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The commission itself would consist of eight federal and 17 non-federal members. The prime directive behind the effort — recommendations to mitigate and manage wildfires. Romney said the panel would be empowered to propose new legislative and administrative direction as well as funding appropriations.

Romney said he acknowledges climate change as a factor in the evolving challenges of managing public lands, including efforts to quell wildfires.

“The planet is getting hotter, the American West is getting hotter,” Romney said. “People ask me, are humans contributing to that? I say, I hope so, because if this is happening without our contribution there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said management actions could include some simple tasks like allowing responsible grazing and removing deadwood, and also called for the support of climate change proponents.

“For those pushing on the science of climate change you can’t ignore the science of fighting wildfires and the safety of our wildlands,” Cox said. “If you care about air quality, if you care about the environment at all, you should care about these efforts to mitigate these tremendous fires.”

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said two wildfires have burned Neff’s Canyon near his city’s Olympus Cove neighborhood this fire season, and noted the amenities that come with living in neighborhoods that border wilderness come with a cost.

“This proximity to wilderness and wildlands offers our residents terrific opportunities,” Silvestrini said. “But this interface also presents a horrific danger to life and property from wildfires.”

Romney said he’s set to put his proposal in legislative motion on his return to Washington, D.C., next week. He said he’d like to see some innovators, as well as climatologists, on the commission and said it is time to take action.

“Let’s lay out a plan to prevent the establishment of these fires,” Romney said. “We’re losing lives and property, and just doing things the way we’ve always been doing them does not make any sense.”

He also believes his proposal will earn bipartisan interest, particularly from those in western states who, like Utah, are facing increasing challenges.

“I’m looking forward to support on the left and the right,” Romney said. “A lot of senators and representatives from California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, you name it.

“The states of the West care very deeply about this.”