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Are terrorists targeting dying forests in Utah and the West?

Published September 20, 2012 8:38 am

Setting dry, beetle-killed trees on fire could cost states millions to fight.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Western land managers received warnings from the FBI that terrorist groups might seize on dry conditions and stands of beetle-killed trees to ignite forest fires, which would cost millions to fight and create widespread chaos, Utah's forester said Wednesday.

"We took it quite seriously," said Dick Buehler, director of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "It was distributed to all land-management agencies in the United States."

In May, national news outlets reported that an al-Qaida affiliated magazine, Inspire, published articles encouraging people to set fires in the United States.

Buehler said the methods that were discussed in the advisory "didn't really make sense."

He said the communication discussed lighting fires in the tops or crowns of the trees, so they would spread — but a fire will typically "crown" and jump across wide areas if it is burning big, and hot and strong winds are blowing.

Buehler said forests in Utah, Idaho and Montana were specifically targeted.

"We didn't really know what to do about it," he said.

Buehler said the threat referred to the dry conditions and stands of dead, beetle-scarred trees, which would burn fast and hot. He said it was an indication that someone had been paying attention to the forest conditions.

Western forests have lost more than 40 million acres to beetles since the late 1990s. Utah alone has seen bugs and disease devour 2 million acres during that time. The toll has been even higher in Montana and Idaho, where beetles have killed at least 6.2 million and 5.2 million acres, respectively.

As for drought, 23 of Utah's 29 counties have declared emergencies, though the entire state is effectively under those dry conditions.

Patrolling such vast areas, Buehler said, would be impossible.

If a terrorist-sparked blaze did break out, he said, crews would tackle it the same way as all other wildfires.

"It's just another fire for us," he added.

The division investigates the cause of every blaze, Buehler said, and none of this summers fires was started by terrorists.

Deborah Bertram, spokeswoman for the FBI in Salt Lake City, said she could not confirm that a bulletin or warning was sent out regarding the fires. The Joint Terrorism Task Force said that "the FBI Salt Lake City Division is aware of no specific, credible threat to Utah."

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said he was told by a terrorism expert that forests are now a terrorist target and argued that the fire risk would be reduced if they were managed by the states instead of the federal government.

gehrke@sltrib.com