Fighting wildfires across Utah has already cost $50 million and legislators were told Tuesday that the state is going to have to come up with $21 million more to pay for fire suppression and rehabilitating the scorched areas.
So far, 1,020 fires have been ignited, burning more than 422,000 acres. The state share of the firefighting cost is estimated at about $16 million, Michael Styler, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, told lawmakers. The federal government is responsible for about $34 million.
Waddoups says to alcohol boss: ‘Feels like you’re dragging your feet’ on DABC reform
Legislative leaders received an update Tuesday about reforms at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, in the wake of a contracting scandal that led to the ouster of the department’s executive director and overhaul of the state liquor commission.
Sal Petilos, the new interim director of the department, said many of the requested changes have been made, but some others — like the creation of a liquor advisory board to provide business input on state alcohol policy — are on hold.
“It almost feels like you’re dragging your feet, like you’ll deal with it when you get to it,” said Senate President Michael Waddoups.
Petilos said the department is waiting for the Senate to confirm the new liquor commission members appointed by the governor, so the full commission can provide input on several issues.
Crews stifling southwestern Utah wildfires
Crews on Tuesday launched a major counterattack on southwestern Utah wildfires that had scorched more than 9,000 acres as new ground and aerial resources arrived on scene.
Fire Information Officer Mike Melton said about 150 firefighters were attacking the Shivwits Wildfire, achieving 55 percent containment of the blaze that had burned 5,100 acres of cheat grass, brush, pinyon and juniper trees 6 miles northwest of the Washington County town of Ivins.
Lightning started another fire in Washington County about 11 p.m. Monday. The Reserve Fire had burned 500 acres north of St. George, near the Mesa Rim Trail, said BLM spokesman Nickolas Howell.
Meanwhile, the Little Pine Wildfire was fully contained after having blackened 2,112 acres 5 miles southwest of Enterprise, also in Washington County.
Crews had fully contained the 22,045-acre Faust Wildfire in northwestern Utah’s Tooele County late Monday. » Get the latest wildfire updates on our website › sltrib.com
And Styler said there is still more to come, as the state is only about two-thirds of the way through the fire season.
In the end, Styler said he expects the state will need to come up with an additional $13 million to pay for fire suppression for the year. Another $8 million will be needed, he said, to re-seed and rehabilitate the burned areas.
The good news, he said, is that the fires clear out the invasive cheatgrass and other flammable growth and present an opportunity for the state to plant native, fire-resistant plants and trees that can burn slower.
"This is not a message of despair. This is a message of hope," Styler said.
Dick Buehler, the state forester, said that Utah has treated about 25,000 acres of watershed areas — all paid for with federal dollars — and those areas have proven to be more fire-resistant.
"There has not been one major fire that has taken place on our restoration projects because the goal of these projects is to change the landscape," Styler said.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, wanted assurances that the federal government would take similar steps to rehabilitate federal land the same way the state does.
"It’s all well and good if we do it on that land, but clearly if the federal government isn’t doing the same types of things" it doesn’t matter, she said.
Styler said the state works closely with the federal government to coordinate the rehabilitation strategy and is grateful that the state can do the rehabilitation without as much red tape.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the Senate chairman of the budget committee, said that lawmakers will likely have to come up with the money to pay for the fire costs.
"I think that’s going to be a must-fund," he said.
Coming up with the money could prove tricky, however. He said he expects lawmakers will have about $40 million in new revenues to spend.
But with $21 million for fire costs, $12 million in expenses related to the data breach earlier this year at the Department of Health, a $5.7 million order from a judge that the state pay a trustee managing a polygamist trust fund, and a permanent fix needed for a $25 million shortfall in education funding, the money will be in high demand.
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