As of Friday, two wildfires in Utah County had burned a combined 68,000 acres, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. The fires were threatening to merge into one large and destructive blaze under a relentless late-summer sun.
Clearly, this unusually hot, dry and combustible fire season is not over yet, and it is exacerbated by a persistent lack of rain in much of the state.
But the larger of these fires, the Pole Creek Fire, also is unusual in that it has drawn the ire of Utah’s lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox. On Thursday, he tweeted a blistering attack on the U.S. Forest Service for what he said was mismanagement.
“More inept decision-making by the Forest Service who decided to try and ‘manage’ this fire and let it burn instead of suppression …” he wrote, adding, “Now raging out of control, homes are threatened and Highway 89 is closed.”
The Forest Service had let the fire burn in an apparent effort to reduce ground fuels in the forest. But high winds and unusually warm nighttime temperatures sent the fire out of control.
Senate candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has leveled similar accusations, saying in essays and speeches that the government should allow more logging in order to thin forests and remove combustible fuels. His opponent, Democrat Jenny Wilson, counters that the government should do more to address climate change issues that are driving up temperatures and intensifying droughts.
When fires are raging, it makes little sense to argue over politics and long-term strategies. The top priority now must be to save homes and contain flames, not win elections.
But in a year when fires have ravaged much of the West, it is good that politicians have begun expressing strong opinions regarding how forests are managed and whether small fires are allowed to burn.
Once the flames are quenched, the nation needs a robust debate over these issues, including whether forests could be thinned without harming sensitive habitats and whether broader international efforts might stem rising temperatures without harming fragile economies.
Those debates, of course, are liable to generate considerable heat on their own. Environmentalists have stood firm against increases in logging. Conservatives believe anti-logging measures have prevented intelligent forest management. Meanwhile, a lack of resources has made firefighting more difficult.
Unlike many fires, which are ignited by careless humans, the two in Utah County were begun by lightning. That removes the potential to throw blame in one more direction.30 comments on this story
But frankly, the blaming needs to stop. Only civil dialog and an effort to build coalitions around common interests will lead to meaningful solutions.
When houses and lives are threatened, little else matters. Heroic firefighters should be given all the resources they need to extinguish the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires.
But then politicians and interest groups owe it to the beleaguered and frightened evacuees to launch good-faith, collaborative efforts to ensure the risks of similar fires are minimized in the future.