One Utah legislator is finally trying to bring a state land-management policy in line with science and the pressing concerns of the 21st century.
Utah has for years seen an increase in the number, size and severity of wildfires. As climate change brings hotter summers and sustained drought to the West, wildfire management soon will reach a crisis stage, if it hasn't already.
Scientists who have warned about the looming consequences of burning ever more fossil fuels now say climate change is not a problem of the future but is already bringing an increase in extreme weather-related events, including the record-setting 2012 fire season. Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt will continue to dry out the soil, vegetation and trees. That creates an environment that fuels more and bigger wildfires.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, is proposing legislation, HB77, that urges the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to adopt pre-suppression strategies that recognize how climate change is already affecting wildfire in the Beehive State.
Powell rightly says his bill is needed to assist the forestry and state lands office in planning for and managing the growing wildfire threat. And he explains that it is a response to his constituents on the Wasatch Back who are worried about the future of their beautiful wooded hills and valleys and their homes.
In 2012, 1,453 wildfires in Utah burned nearly 500,000 acres. Fighting the fires cost an estimated $50 million, and Utah taxpayers paid $16 million of that.
Coming years will bring only worse fires and higher costs as the planet continues warming. Last year was the hottest year on record, and despite a cold January along the Wasatch Front, that trend is not likely to change. Utah is the second-driest state after Nevada, which means more tinder-dry conditions and less water to keep things green and help prevent fires burning closer to subdivisions and forest interface areas.
Legislators, many of whom still deny the reality of human-caused climate change and its consequences, should nevertheless approve Powell's bill. It would provide much-needed aid to those who must plan and pay for managing the public lands that are threatened by hotter temperatures.
It's not only a matter of protecting forests and open lands but has become a matter of public safety for those who live near them.