Firefighters are bracing for more high winds Wednesday as they try to slow a southern Utah wildfire that has burned 13 homes and forced the evacuation of 1,500 people.
Firefighters are hoping to be able to put out hot spots on the southern end of the Brian Head fire to allow residents to return to the ski town. Homes there have been evacuated since June 17. Authorities say the fire started by someone using a torch tool to burn weeds on private land.
After surveying the largest fire in the nation at 78 square miles, Utah Republican State Representative Mike Noel from Kanab said the federal government needs to take the steps necessary to reduce damage from wildfires and to protect mountain homes.
"I think the timing is really good, because right now the United States House of Representative are in the process of marking up the forestry bill," Noel said.
Noel blames U.S. Forest Service and BLM land managers for giving in to environmental groups and preventing the removal of beetle-infested pines that were killed nearly 20 years ago. He argues that allowing agencies and private timber operators to clear dead wood from areas within the Dixie National Forest would have helped to prevent the spread of the fire that has destroyed 13 seasonal homes.
"And I know there are those that will criticize that, saying no you can't live in a forest and you can't expect things not to burn,” he said. "I would say to those nay-sayers that we can do it and we can do it in a responsible way."
Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. Noel said that during committee hearings in Washington D.C. on Tuesday the congressman referred to the Brian Head fire. Bishop showed a YouTube video of Noel explaining the extent of the fire and reasons why he believes the amount of damage from the blaze is due to poor management.
"We do have the ear of the policy makers in D.C., and we have an opportunity to show that we can do a better job of managing these lands,” Noel said. “With public input, with input from users, with input from the education community from the colleges and universities, I think we can make some better decisions for everybody."
Throughout the video, Noel names and criticizes groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Society (SUWA) and the Grand Canyon Trust for working with a group several years ago known as the Friends of Dixie National Forest. Together, he said, the organizations have influenced management of Utah’s forests in the counties he represents.
Noel is urging members who have donated money to organizations he says worked to limit logging in Utah's federal forests to donate to resident in Panquitch and to Utah's taxpayers. He said the money should be used to help cover what is now an estimated $7 million bill to fight the Brian Head fire.
Thursday on Utah Public Radio, SUWA legal director Steve Block responds to Noel’s claims.