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Sunday May 19th, 2019 6:27PM

Utah officials blame lack of logging for major wildfire

By The Associated Press
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Insisting that logging could have cleaned up dead, bug-infested trees that are fueling a Utah wildfire, a Republican state lawmaker blamed federal mismanagement and lawsuits by "tree hugger" environmentalists for the blaze that has burned 13 homes and forced the evacuation of 1,500 people.

A conservation group called that contention "shameful" and misleading, saying it fails to take into account climate change and drought.

In addition, a U.S. Forest Service researcher said logging probably would not have made a big difference in the high-altitude fire that is sending embers from tree-to-tree over long distances — normal for the ecosystem.

Utah state Rep. Mike Noel said Tuesday he wants to use the fire near the ski town of Brian Head and a popular fishing lake to highlight the imbalance of power afforded environmental groups under previous presidents and to ease bureaucratic and legal blockades for logging companies. He believes the Trump administration will provide a more receptive audience for his plea.

The blaze is one of several in the West. Crews in California were making gains against two new fires that spread quickly, and firefighters in Idaho battled five lightning-sparked wildfires burning in grass and brush.

Crews dealt with windy conditions as they battled a northern Arizona wildfire that has burned nearly 7 square miles (18 square kilometers).

Authorities say the Utah fire was started on June 17 by someone using a torch tool to burn weeds on private land.

Noel contends it wouldn't have spread as fast if federal forest lands had been cleared of dead trees.

A video of his Monday rant against environmentalists generated social media buzz and sparked new debate about whether logging could help prevent Western wildfires. He joined several other state and county officials in speaking out.

"When we turn the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers, we've turned our history over," Noel said. "We are going to lose our wildlife and we are going to lose our scenery, the very thing you people wanted to try to protect. It's just plain stupidity."

Mark Finney, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Service Fire Science Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, said getting rid of the dead trees in the Brian Head area probably would not have made much difference. The trees died years ago, making irrelevant a 2011 U.S. Forest Service study that found the needles of beetle-killed trees ignite three times faster and burn more intensely than healthy trees.

"If we're looking for someone to blame, there isn't anyone," Finney said. "Forests burn."

Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Noel's assertion is an over-simplification of wildfires that are the result of fire suppression, climate change, drought and unpredictable winds.

"It's shameful that Rep. Noel has chosen to exploit the fire and mislead the public by saying that conservationists are to blame for this event," Bloch said.

Stiff winds and hot temperatures have made the Utah blaze the largest in the nation at 78 square miles (201 sq. kilometers). The estimated cost of fighting the blaze has reached $11 million.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said logging or fires being allowed to burn in the state's forests would help get rid of timber that serves as easy fuel for the blazes. But he also acknowledged that drought and climate play a role.

U.S. Forest Service officials and Utah state officials didn't immediately have information about logging requests in the area.

Finney said logging companies generally can't make money in operations at high elevations because the trees don't grow back quickly enough and logistics are difficult.

Bloch said his group hasn't challenged logging in the area of the Utah fire in two decades. But Noel says the lawsuit in the early 1990s delayed a Forest Service plan to get rid of an emerging cluster of bark beetles before it spread.

Chad Hanson, co-founder the John Muir Project, co-authored a 2009 study that was one of the first to dispute the theory that bug-infested trees burn faster.

"That's just logging industry propaganda," Hanson said. "This is a direct outgrowth of the rhetoric of fear and hate coming out of the Trump administration. It has emboldened some very anti-environmental voices."

Meanwhile in California, firefighters had two major blazes under enough control to allow evacuated residents to return to their homes.

Mandatory evacuations for dozens of homes were called for in a wildfire in rugged foothills east of Los Angeles that broke out Tuesday, but residents there were allowed back home within a few hours.

The blaze erupted and quickly surged in hot, dry, windy weather.

A half-square-mile (1.4 sq. kilometer) wildfire erupted and quickly surged in hot, dry, windy weather near Highland in San Bernardino County. It was climbing ridges and moving away from homes but came frighteningly close to a subdivision, prompting the evacuations, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Gerrelaine Alcordo said.

In Central California, a 2.5-square-mile (6.5 sq. kilometer) wildfire that burned at least one building was 60 percent contained. About 250 residents were ordered from their homes in the area of Santa Margarita after the blaze erupted Monday, but on Tuesday night they were told they could return home.

___

Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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