U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney said Thursday that global climate change will make wildfires in Utah increasingly common and dangerous — so federal and state governments should spend big money to help prevent them and reduce their severity.
“It means wildfires are going to become a regular part of life and more and more dangerous,” he said at the Utah Capitol during a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee forum about wildfires. “We have to recognize that business as usual is not going to solve the problem. We have to step up in a far more aggressive way.”
It came after his Democratic opponent, Jenny Wilson, earlier this month attacked a Romney essay that called for increased efforts against wildfires. She said he largely ignored climate change — referring to it obliquely as “climate realities” — and Wilson said addressing climate change as a crisis is the way to protect the West.
While some key Republican conservatives question climate change, Romney made clear Friday that he believes it exists, and he said it requires big changes in forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
“I happen to believe that the global climate change that you are seeing is going to continue even if we see all of the nations of the world abide by the Paris Accord," he said. "We’re still going to get warmer and warmer as a planet,” leading to hot, dry conditions that fuel and intensify fires.
The 2012 GOP presidential nominee added that wildfires in Utah and the West are “not just going to be ongoing but more severe” if nothing is done to prevent or mitigate them.
He proposed more work to reduce a buildup of fuels in forests, create more firebreaks and defensible areas around communities, establish more regional wildfire centers with aircraft and other equipment to quickly attack fires before they get big, and use more early-warning technology to identify fires as they start.
“These things I described cost a lot of money,” Romney said.
“I would propose that the financing of this major investment that is going to be required be split based upon who owns the land,” he said. “So the federal government has 66 percent of the land in Utah, so they pick up 66 percent of the costs. If they want a lower share of the costs, they can give the land back to us.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, asked Romney which of his several suggestions he would prioritize — saying Congress would likely fund only one or two.
“The most important thing is — to do all of them,” Romney said. “The consequence of not combating in a very aggressive way these fires is the loss of human life, the loss of homes, the loss of structures, and a severe health impact for those of us who are breathing smoky air pretty much for the entire month, and on wildlife.”
The forum featured speakers from the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, firefighters, academics and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. They universally called for more fuel reduction and better forest management to mitigate fires and their severity.
State Forester Brian Cottam outlined how bad this fire season has been and predicted that worse blazes will follow if prevention work isn’t improved.
Cottam said 186,000 acres have burned: “That’s 50 percent more than we would normally see." (His estimate did not include the fire that sparked Thursday evening in Weber and Cache counties, leading to the evacuation of Powder Mountain Resort.)
About 40-50 structures usually burn in a year, but homes often are not destroyed. “So far this year in the state of Utah, we’ve burned nearly 400 structures and 86 of those have been homes,” Cottam said.
Firefighting statewide costs about $50 million a year. “Already this year,” he said, “we’re at about $75 million. … Again, that’s a 50 percent increase.”
Cox, the lieutenant governor, emphasized the call for more fuel reduction and for creating defensible areas around communities. He said that where that happened near his home in Sanpete County this year — including the planting of fire-resistant grass — the fires stopped.
“This all sounds too simple and makes far too much sense, I know, for it to ever happen,” he said.
Dave Whittekiend, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor, urged the state and others to try to help save locals lumber mills, saying they are essential in making fuel reduction affordable and possible because they use those fire fuels to make paper and fiber products.
Cox thanked him for that support, saying “halle-freaking-lujah.” Bishop said that in Utah, the proper thanks should actually be “halle-flippin-lujah.”
Several officials, including Cox, also called for federal fire officials to consult more often with local officials, who are more familiar with local geography and conditions.
He said he twice saw federal officials allow fires to burn as “controlled burns” when he and neighbors knew conditions would allow them to get out of hand — and they did. “It was a dumba-- decision,” he said.
Bishop also complained that federal regulations require planting natural grass to replace invasive cheatgrass that has burned. He said native grasses often cannot survive there, but crusted wheat grass would, providing better grazing.
Bishop said he held the forum to gather comments from locals as an annual farm bill — with money for fire prevention and suppression — is being negotiated between the House and Senate.