A particularly devastating fire season destroyed over 480,000 acres and 400 structures in Utah last year, according to Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful. Because of the damage and the negative impact of wildfires on Utah air quality, legislators are pushing for policies to reduce fire risks.
“We could say it was just a bad fire year, but was it part of a pattern?” Ward said in a House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment committee meeting Feb. 15. “In the Western states, it’s not hard to see that there have been more fires in recent years.”
Ward said he attributes the increase in fire frequency and intensity to three factors: federal forestry policies that regulate harvesting timber, federal policies that regulate prescribed burns and climate change. That’s why he said he sponsors HCR5, a resolution urging the federal government to pursue policies that would improve these issues and reduce fire risk.
“Prescribed burns are one of our main tools for reducing fuel load so that we can mitigate fire risk ahead of the high risk season,” Ward said. “Sometimes the regulations in place delay those prescribed burns from ever happening, and then that delays results in something worse happening during a high risk season.”
He said if federal partners would work on policies to make it easier for those prescribed burns to happen in low risk times, it would lower the chance of wildfires catching during drier seasons.
Ward also said companies that want to harvest lumber often get lawsuits brought against them, and the policies in place don’t prevent that from happening, so Utah forest floors build up plenty of fuel for wildfires.
Fire is an important part of natural Western ecosystems because it helps with forest regeneration, according to Ben Abbott, a BYU ecosystem ecology assistant professor.
“What can be damaging though, both for ecosystems and for society, are what we call ‘mega-fires,’ these very intense and large fires,” Abbott said. “If we look, since the 1970s, the extent of fire has doubled.”
Abbott said he supports HCR5 because the reasons Ward pointed out are backed by environmental science.
Though Ward urged his fellow committee members to pass HCR5 as is, the committee opted to strike the passages mentioning climate change from the bill’s text. Some said they felt the wording got into nebulous areas, while others simply felt the forestry policies were easier to address.
Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, proposed amending the bill to remove the climate change statements, which passed.
“It seems cleaner to focus on the things that this committee agrees on, air quality and forestry management, not on what is a much more complicated issue that seems to be a tangent from the purpose of the resolution,” Hawkes said.
Ward said he is still glad that the resolution will move forward. “But I hope we’re not shying away from a discussion of climate change in general,” he said.
HCR5 will be discussed next on the House floor.