Fires are intensifying, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney wants a new national strategy to fight them

Utah Republican announces a bill that would create a commission with spots set aside for states battling the most flames.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney looks up at the hillside homes near Draper as he is joined by Draper Fire Chief Clint Smith, left, and Draper Mayor Troy Walker after an announcement to establish a wildfire commission during a news conference at Little Valley Trailhead in Draper on Friday, June 18, 2021. The commission would conduct a national review of wildfire policy and make recommendations to Congress.

Draper • In the middle of a historic heat wave and an intense drought across the West, Sen. Mitt Romney stared into the sun and pitched his plan for a new national strategy to fight wildfires.

The Utah Republican is calling for the creation of a national commission that would study ways to reduce the massive, destructive blazes that the region has endured year after year.

“We keep doing things the way we have done them in the past without recognizing that the world has changed. It’s getting drier in the American West. Our state’s getting drier. The fires are becoming bigger,” Romney said during a Friday news conference. “The loss of life is more significant. And continuing to do the things that we’ve done in the past doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

He promoted his legislation at the Little Valley Trailhead in Draper, a place where wildlands are dotted with expensive homes on the foothills. The sun beat down on the senator as he talked about developing a plan to fight fires whether they were on federal or state lands or held by private owners.

“The focus of this commission is to make sure that we have a comprehensive strategy for preventing fires from occurring to the extent possible,” he said, “and also getting them out as quickly as possible.”

Utah is experiencing four major fires right now and has tracked 380 blazes that burned more than 40,000 acres so far this year. About 85% were started by people. The National Weather Service has issued a critical fire warning through the weekend for Utah.

Romney first raised his idea for a commission last October. He’s expected to introduce the legislation next week. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. And in the House, it is sponsored by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.

Romney’s bill would create a 28-member commission that would take a year to develop recommendations. It would be jointly run by the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, along with the administration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Beyond three co-chairs, the group would include eight federal commission members and 17 experts from outside the federal government.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bear Fire burns in the mountains northwest of Helper on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.

Romney’s bill would encourage the selection of members from states that had at least one FEMA or major disaster declaration for a fire in four of the past five years. Using 2016 to 2020 data, that would include nine states: Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Washington and Oklahoma.

The commission would have a year to file two reports, one on managing wildfires and a second on the aerial equipment, such as helicopters and planes, needed to fight them.

Romney plans to tuck this proposal into a big infrastructure package. He’s part of a bipartisan group of 20 senators who have crafted a stripped-down $579 billion bill that focuses on “classic infrastructure,” such as roads, airports, water systems and more. He said there is “a very high probability” that some infrastructure measure passes, either the one he is working on or a bigger, Democrat-only plan. Either way, he hopes his wildfire commission is part of the finished product.

While Romney made it clear that he is not an expert, he named a few issues the commission could address. One would be making it easier to get a permit to conduct a controlled burn of an area with deadwood. Another would be signing long-term contracts with companies to harvest deadwood from forests for commercial purposes. Another would be a comprehensive plan on where equipment to fight fires should be stationed, making them easier to access.

Noting his plan is about fighting fires in the future, he commended Utah Gov. Spencer Cox for taking steps to stop fires from breaking out. Cox barred fireworks on state land and unincorporated private land because of the fire risks during this severe drought. He said he wanted to ban fireworks statewide, but he doesn’t have that power, and the state Legislature is not interested.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mitt Romney announces his bill to establish a wildfire commission during a press event at Little Valley Trailhead in Draper on Friday, June 18, 2021. The commission would conduct a national review of wildfire policy and make recommendations to Congress.

Romney said it wasn’t his place to tell people what to do on fireworks, but he did offer some general advice.

“I would say to our fellow Utahns that this is a time for us to be very careful about any kind of fire or anything we might do that might lead to a fire, a wildfire of one kind or another, whether that’s fireworks or campfires,” he said. “And I’d also say that we have to make a very special effort to check around our homes” for branches or loose wood that could burn.

A historic heat wave has made the drought and wildfire threat worse in the Western states. Salt Lake City matched its all-time high of 107 degrees on June 15. The U.S. Drought Monitor has identified much of Utah in an exceptional drought, the highest category. And only a small part of northern Utah is in a moderate drought. This is the most severe drought conditions in the West in at least 20 years.

Romney said the West will have to confront the challenges of climate change, and his proposal is one way to do that.

“There’s a recognition on both sides of the aisle that the planet is getting hotter and drier, and particularly the American West,” he said. “We’re in a drought in the American West, unlike anything I’ve seen during my lifetime. And some people argue about how much of this is caused by humans and how much is caused by natural cycles. I don’t get into that argument. I hope it’s caused by humans, because if it’s not caused by humans, there’s nothing we can do about it.”