Wildfires ‘no longer seasonal’: New federal task force meets in Utah, aims to combat changing fire risk

The commission met for the first time in Salt Lake City last week and is due to deliver its first report to Congress in January.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fire crews respond to a wildfire along Interstate 80 west of Magna, Friday, June 17, 2022.

A new federal wildfire commission formed last year met for the first time in Salt Lake City last week with an eye for fighting blazes that are starting to spark 365 days a year, regardless of traditional wildfire seasons.

“Wildfire is an entity that is now no longer seasonal,” U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell, who advises the new commission, said last week. “So we must have resources, we must do planning, to adapt to live with fire.”

The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission was established in December, after it was authorized by President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Beehive State was chosen for the commission’s first meeting last week because Sen. Mitt Romney was an initial sponsor on the wildland fire commission bill that became a part of the infrastructure act.

Utah has experienced at least 913 wildfires so far this year, which have burned over 25,000 acres, according to Utah Wildfire Info. During last year’s record drought, the state experienced 1,131 wildfires that burned almost 64,000 acres.

The commission is made up of 32 federal, state, tribal, county and local officials from across the nation. It includes one member (and one alternate member) from Utah — Utah State Hazard Mitigation Officer Kathy Holder, and Rich County Commissioner Bill Cox. It is co-chaired by the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior.

The commission will recommend a series of policy initiatives to Congress in September 2023, but an initial report is due in January on aviation-related wildfire suppression techniques.

“Over the next 12 months, the work that comes out of this commission will be extraordinarily consequential,” Romney said in a video statement on the commission’s first meeting. “With fires becoming more devastating and more frequent, the policy recommendations and strategies can be a critical step at better protecting our communities and the environment.”

Salt Lake City is an example of an area located right within the “wildland-urban interface,” the transitional zone where human developments meet and intermingle with undeveloped wildland.

Reducing fuels in wildland-urban interfaces — as well as developing appropriate infrastructure in areas that are prone to burning, and maintaining capabilities for wildfire response and recovery — are the main strategies that Moore-Merrell said the commission discussed.

“Wildfire is a natural hazard, just like storms,” Moore-Merrell said. “And that’s something I don’t think that the general public and many of our leaders understand. Wildfire is a natural hazard, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster.”

One of the biggest challenges the commission faces: climate change. Moore-Merrell said the states often at highest risk for wildfires are those experiencing severe drought — which leads to more dry fuels for possible fire starts.

“When we now look at risk, we have to consider those things and prepare differently to be fire adaptive, and to be prepared to respond,” she said.