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Homeowner questions firefighter tactics used to fight Seeley Fire

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 6:57 p.m. MDT

Flames of the Seeley Fire burn the trees Wednesday, June 27, 2012, about 16 miles west of Price, Utah.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

HUNTINGTON — A property owner in Sanpete County is upset with the Forest Service’s response to the Seeley Fire.

David Cunningham accuses the agency of churning up some private property with bulldozers and backfires to avoid damaging roadless areas in the national forest.

Forest Service officials have a completely different explanation, and they say they have bulldozed national forest lands as well.

For the firefighters encamped in Huntington, things have turned much more favorable in the last few days, partly because of the weather, but also because they chose their ground on which to make a stand. And that's exactly why some private-property owners are concerned.

The blaze, near the Manti-La Sal National Forest on Seeley Mountain, was started by dry lightning on June 26. In the last two weeks, it burned more than 48,000 acres or 76 square miles.

During the battle, firefighters tried to get well out in front of the fast-moving fire by bulldozing firebreaks and setting backfires to eat up the fuel.

Cunningham owns investment property near Electric Lake. He fears the federal crews fighting the fire refused to take a stand on public lands, instead sacrificing lands like his own. Cunningham has to visit his investment property by Google Earth these days because he can't go back to see what they actually did to his property.

A couple of weeks ago, when the fire was about two miles away, he said the U.S. Forest Service told him it might have to bulldoze part of his land because it was the best place to fight the wildfire. He claimed an official told him it couldn't do the work in a roadless area of the national forest, closer to the fire, because there's a policy against bulldozers.

"The issue to me is: Why can't they do everything possible to fight the fire on national forest lands before it affects private lands?" Cunningham asked. "They would set backfires on natural firebreaks, but they wouldn't create a firebreak with a bulldozer in a roadless area."

Allen Rowley, forest supervisor for the Manti-La Sal National Forest, said there is no such policy. He said firefighters made their stand on private ground because there was just too much beetle-killed timber on federal land.

"Where you have the most fuel is where you have the most resistance to control," Rowley said. "The fire's hardest to put out."

He said the private land had different fuels: aspen, sagebrush, meadows and grasses. 

"Where we could make a stand and be successful in managing the fire … it just so happened that most of that was off the national forest where we had that type of fuel change,” Rowley said.

Some property owners believe that situation reflects bad long-term forest management: Private land was thinned and logged, making it safer. They wonder why the Forest Service didn’t treat the public lands.

Rowley said the Forest Service has a lot of ground to cover, about 1.7 million acres.

“Where we have done mechanical fuels treatment, either timber harvest or thinning, or some prescribed burning in advanced, it’s made a significant difference in the fire behavior where we’ve done it,” he said. “We do what we can. We have to pick our priorities. We are not going to be able to treat everything across the West.”

The Forest Service focuses the management of the land by choosing areas that will make a difference and where it can be effective, he said.

He said the area where the Seeley Fire burned had steep terrain, which is difficult to treat. “I don’t know how you would do anything to treat the fuels there with any sensitivity to the land,” he said. “I can’t imagine how you would be logging in that kind of setting to make a difference.”

The fire, which is 76 percent contained, threatens about 250 residences, 15 commercial properties, 500 outbuildings, recreational facilities, communication towers and utility lines. The fire remains south of the community of Clear Creek, where evacuations remain in effect.

More than 500 fire crews continue to mop up and patrol around the entire fire perimeter. Crews hope to have the fire fully contained by Sunday. It is likely to be weeks before the last firefighter goes home.

So far, nearly $7 million has been spent fighting this wildfire.

Contributing:  Viviane Vo-Duc

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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