Senator Romey says past policies no longer work as West gets drier and fires are more prevalentJun 29, 2021 10:58AM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton
L-R Jamie Barnes, Fred Lowry, Clint Smith, Troy Walker and members of the Draper Fire Department listen as Sen. Mitt Romney announced his plans for a bill to support a national review of wildfire policy. The announcement took place June 18 at Draper’s Little Valley Trailhead. (Mimi Darley Dutton/City Journals)
By Mimi Darley Dutton | [email protected]
Temperatures soared as Sen. Mitt Romney visited Draper June 18 to announce his bill to establish a commission to conduct a national review of wildfire policy. City officials, firefighters, police and state forestry representatives joined Romney and his staff for the event.
Looking out at the hills and green trees surrounding the Little Valley Trailhead, the location of his announcement, the senator commented, “It doesn’t look like a city, it looks like wildland. It’s a spectacular view.”
One year prior, and just up the road from where Romney made his announcement, a wildfire sparked by fireworks led to a SunCrest neighborhood being evacuated. Several hundred acres burned after strong winds pushed the “Traverse Fire” north from where it started in Utah County last June. Those burn scars were not visible from where the senator stood, but Draper Mayor Troy Walker and the firefighters at the event remember it clearly. “This is the time of year that I get the most stressed out…it just takes a spark,” Walker said.
Jamie Barnes is Acting Director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “The issues are real and unprecedented…addressing mitigation and prevention is a priority,” she said, noting that 85% of fires are human caused and challenging decisions need to be made on all levels.
“The entire state is the driest it’s been since 1895. Local leaders want to make sure they have a seat at the table…to make sure they don’t become catastrophic disasters,” Walker said as he introduced Romney.
The senator’s press release announcing the bill states that, for more than 100 years, the federal government has partnered with states to suppress wildfires, but it’s been more than a decade since congress required those federal agencies to evaluate whether its firefighting strategies are working. “The American West is facing unprecedented wildland fire activity after decades of poor forest management, increased fuel load, and a hotter and drier climate. Current federal wildland fire policy is a patchwork of legislation and agency guidance across departments and jurisdictions, further complicated by mixed land ownership. This bill would require a review of the nation’s wildland firefighting strategies…by a commission made up of the nation’s top experts, including state and local stakeholder,” the press release states.
The proposal is for a commission comprised of 28 members, 11 federal and 17 nonfederal stakeholders, with preference given to representation from communities and states that have had at least one FEMA Fire Management Assistance incident or a major disaster declaration for fire in the last five years.
Romney spoke of ideas such as long-term contracts with loggers to alleviate what he said are forests filled with dead wood in state and national forests, otherwise that dead wood is fuel for fires. He wants to see more firefighting aircraft located in states that are at high fire risk so they’re ready to go, rather than having delays in getting equipment from the federal government or obtaining aircraft from other states. He wants the commission to find ways to limit regulations so the need for fire mitigation doesn’t get held up by red tape.
“I’ve heard of a desire for controlled burn, but by the time they get the permits, the rain is gone and major fire danger doesn’t allow for that. We keep seeing bigger fires, lives lost, structures lost. We keep doing things the way we’ve done in the past…that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” the senator said.
Joining Romney (R-UT) in crafting the bill are Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Rep. John Curtis (R-UT). Romney said there’s recognition on both sides of the aisle that the planet is getting hotter, though some attribute it to human-caused climate change while others say it’s a natural cycle for the Earth. “I hope it’s caused by humans because, if not, there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to change the practices of the whole world,” Romney said.
Clint Smith is Draper’s Fire Chief. He’s been in the firefighting business for 27 years. He thinks a fresh look at current federal policies is much needed. “I would hope the fire service would have a seat at the table to make sure experiences we’re seeing on the front lines are being communicated to the committee. Without input from those people at the front lines, it loses the effectiveness of looking at the policy and how we apply that policy currently,” he said.
Smith said the allocation of resources is becoming more challenging as fires have increased in the West, causing air resources to become scarce and having to be re-assigned from one incident to another. That obstacle, combined with urban sprawl that’s led to more buildings and homes in wildland/urban interface areas, makes it all the more difficult for people in his profession. “All over the West, we have a significant amount of residents that are sitting in that identified risk area, more than ever before. That creates more challenges for firefighters. Not only do we have higher frequency and intensity of these types of fires, we have more life and property at risk than we ever have, and that exacerbates the whole problem.”
“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you know this is an issue we’ve got to tackle. It looks like it’s going to be a tough year, so we’re going to have to take advantage of Congress to effectively address this problem,” Romney said. “We’ve got to do something different than what we’ve done in the past.”