State forest managers lay out plan to reduce risk of wildfires

Posted at 11:10 AM, Jul 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-15 13:10:57-04

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – After catastrophic fires in 2012, Gov. Gary Herbert called on Utah forest managers to come up with a plan to reduce the risk of major wildfires.

At the capitol on Tuesday, The Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands took the charge and reported its progress to members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.

Brian Cottam, is the director of State Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. He told lawmakers that thankfully, Utah hasn’t experienced devastating wildfires.

“We’ve had instances where lives have been lost in Utah and homes have been lost. We’ve been fortunate that we have not had anything to the magnitude that Colorado, Washington State. Others have had horrible fires,” Cottam said.

Cottam admits the state can’t eliminate the risk of wildfires, but reassured lawmakers they are working on reducing the size, intensity and frequency of wildfires.

“It’s decisions about what we do before fire comes, prevention preparedness mitigation, the pre-suppression work and how we allocate money to that. If we do that right, we drop the numbers hopefully, that’s the expected outcome, which drops cost,” Cottam added.

Since 2012, the legislatures has signed off on $2 million to help with 18 mitigation and fuel reduction projects across the state.

In July, lawmakers allocated another $2.5 million to help fund 27 projects.

For example, $1.7 million from the NCRS regional conservation partnership program, $100,000 from the U.S. Forest Service, and $600,000 from the U.S. Forest Service’s Washington office. And a $150,000 grant from Western State Fire managers.

While committee members believe state forest managers are making strides in reducing the risk of fires, some say the federal government needs to step up and take better care of its land.

“All your work might seem a little useless compared to the fact that they own three times more land than the land for which you have any stewardship,” said Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R -West Jordan, also shared his discontent with the federal government.

As of 2005, 77% of our forest managed by the federal government are in catastrophic condition.

“$600,000, $150,000 the magnitude of that problem is that a drop in the bucket?” Ivory asked.

Cottam agreed the federal government can always do more, but it’s a start.

“What we’ve seen too often at the federal level particularly with congress, is they’re not willing to make the decisions to change how we deal with wild land fires in this country. And so it’s a dysfunctional system often,” Cottam said.

Cottam said meantime, they’ll continue their efforts on the ground to better position wildfires when wildfires hit. But the reality is, fires are dependent on weather and natural conditions.