Tribune editorial: Pole Creek fire second guessing only adds political haze

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Hall tries to fix a reel while fishing with his wife Katie and son Jonas at Strawberry Reservoir on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Behind them the sky was filled with smoke from the Pole Creek Fire.

“More inept decision-making by the Forest Service who decided to try and ‘manage’ this fire and let it burn instead of suppression — during one of the worst droughts in recent history.”

— Tweet from Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Sept. 13.

Did the Pole Creek fire get away from the U.S. Forest Service?

Absolutely, but when the state’s second ranking official says the feds ineptly let it burn, he’s only showing his own shortcomings.

In fact, the Forest Service had 52 people on the scene within a day of the lightning strike that started it, and the intention was never to just “let it burn.”

If Cox didn’t know that when he spoke up, he could have. Five days before his tweet, the Forest Service had posted on its website that it had two hand crews, one engine crew and seven supervisors on the fire.

“Firefighters are using confine and contain suppression techniques to minimize risk to firefighters while allowing the fire to reduce heavy fuel loading and enhance wildlife habitat,” the Forest Service reported on Sept. 8.

If Cox wants to second-guess, he should do it in real time when it might do some good. Instead, he waited until an unexpected wind blew the fire up.

It’s so easy for this to get sucked up into the Twitter-fueled, fake news/political tribalism vortex, something Cox generally tries to rise above. Spreading the idea that the Forest Service simply let a fire burn perpetuates the bogus line that public lands managers in Washington are bowing to environmentalists with little regard to Utahns.

In fact, this decision was made locally by the Forest Service’s experts, all of whom are Cox’s constituents. Simply put, they know more about this than he does. They have to weigh not just the property at risk but also the limited resources available across the West in this fire-filled season. They also have to look out for the people most threatened by wildfires — the firefighters, almost all of whom are Westerners, including many Utahns.

The decision made on Pole Creek was similar to ones made on earlier Utah fires in this dry fire season. In those cases, the fires behaved as expected and control measures worked.

The wildfire equation is not simple, and climate change and a human desire to live among trees are much bigger factors than any bureaucrat’s decisions. At the heart of the problem is that forests need fire. It’s an undeniable part of the natural cycle, one that can’t be duplicated by simply removing the fuel. Even as logging can be part of the solution, fire does things that logging can’t.

Yes, years of federal forest policy have put us in this position. But most of the problem is because the Forest Service has been fighting fires aggressively, not because it hasn’t. The result is a buildup of fuels that now, in the age of climate change, must be carefully reduced.

Even with the Pole Creek fire reaching what could be called a worst case scenario — with erosion and mudslides still to come — no lives have been lost and property destruction has been minimal. And a large patch of forest can begin its next growth cycle.

If it had to do it again knowing what it knows now, the Forest Service likely would have tried to kill this fire outright early on. But that would have only put off the inevitable.

Cox declined to elaborate when a Tribune reporter tried to follow up with him about his tweet and the Forest Service’s explanation.

Instead, he just let it burn.