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How Utah Rep. Blake Moore aims to use science to prevent wildfires

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A wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatens homes in Lehi in2020.

A wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatens homes in Lehi on Sunday, June 28, 2020. Utah Rep. Blake Moore’s bipartisan bill joins several measures lawmakers have proposed to prevent massive fires.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As dozens of wildfires ravage the parched western United States, a Utah congressman has introduced legislation to use advanced science to identify high-risk areas and speed up forest management projects.

Republican Rep. Blake Moore’s bipartisan bill joins several measures lawmakers have proposed to prevent massive fires like those burning in Oregon and California. More than 75 large wildfires are burning in 13 states, most of them in the West where dry conditions, drought and record-breaking heat have made for extreme fire danger.

The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon has now consumed nearly 400,000 acres and was only 32% contained. It has destroyed at least 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings.

In Utah, firefighters have responded to 648 wildfires charring nearly 60,000 acres so far this year, according to Kayli Yardley, statewide prevention specialist. Human-caused fires account for almost 28,000 of those acres.

“Over a billion acres of land in the U.S. are at risk for wildfires, and this is a major problem in Utah and across the West as we experience a historic drought season,”  Moore said. “This rapid uptick in wildfires is due to forests being overstocked with fuel, fire exclusion policies, drought and more.”

Moore said the bill would give land managers tools to better prevent, mitigate and respond to wildfires.

The Forest Improvements through Research and Emergency Stewardship for Healthy Ecosystem Development and Sustainability Act would use cutting-edge Forest Service science to identify the highest risk firesheds across the country and incentivize partnerships to expedite the pace and scale of forest management projects.

The proposal would allow the secretary of the interior, working with governors, to designate areas for management projects in states. The projects would be identified using advanced technologies and wildfire hazard models to prioritize reducing threats to public health, critical infrastructure, wildlife habitats and watersheds. That would be done by creating fuel and fire breaks, conducting hazardous fuels management and prescribed burns, and removing unhealthy tree stands.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said his home state has more than 60 million acres of forestland but is punished with over 10,000 wildfires a year. 

“We can’t afford to trivialize these relentless fires and their widespread, devastating effects,” he said.

In 2020, more than 50,000 wildfires burned nearly 10 million acres across the country, a roughly 25% increase over the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The size of modern forest fires is far outpacing current preventative efforts, according to Moore.

As a result, the cost and environmental impact of wildfires is skyrocketing. According to a report from the California Air Resources Board, California’s 2020 wildfire season alone emitted 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to about 24 million cars driving in a year.

Last month, Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Reps. John Curtis, R-Utah, and Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., proposed creating a commission to study and recommend fire prevention, mitigation, management and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands. 

Romney blames the West’s “unprecedented” wildfire problem on decades of poor forest management and the reality of a hotter and drier climate. He said federal agencies need to break free from their current ways of wildfire management, which he said clearly hasn’t been working.

In April, Romney, Curtis, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., introduced the Making Access to Cleanup Happen Act after seeing the bureaucratic hurdles communities in Utah and Duchesne counties faced in the wake of large fires in 2018.

The bill directs the Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop a list of watershed rehabilitation activities for potential Emergency Watershed Protection program sponsors to carry out prior to project approval. It calls for the service to consult with state officials about watershed rehabilitation work.