Guest opinion: Wildfires and government responsibility

With smoke from California and Utah wildfires clouding the Wasatch front, I’ve decided to temporarily put aside the traditional federal issues to take up an issue that has been bothering me for quite some time. Last October, watching wildfires burn across the West, I tweeted:

“Uncontrolled fires, loss of lives & property = failure of prime govt responsibility, underinvestment in helos, planes, personnel, systems.”

Massive, destructive wildfires are no longer the exception. Climate realities mean they will be a recurring menace every year. It’s high time for government to do something about them. While I am far from an expert on this topic, I have gained perspective through first-hand observation of the Dollar Ridge Fire, the environmental trauma from the Brian Head Fire, and the alarming accumulation of dead timber along Highway 35.

I’ve been asked what I meant by that. Today, I’ll explain.

I think we can all agree that one of government’s primary responsibilities is to secure the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. So far, wildfires this year have killed 10 people, consumed hundreds of homes, and infringed upon freedom of movement of hundreds of thousands. Government’s failure is unarguable.

That failure is generally excused by labeling wildfires as an act of nature, thus uncontrollable and unpreventable. I find that excuse unacceptable. If the devastation of wildfires were being caused, instead, by a foreign enemy rather than by natural causes, we would do and spend whatever it took to stop it.

Next, we should build a high-tech early detection system to spot fires before they grow to uncontrollable scale. Whether by satellite, drone, or sensor, every square mile of high risk territory should be monitored.

More regional response hubs should be located across the West. These should have many more fixed-wing fire fighting aircraft, heavy-lift helicopters, and more trained personnel. When fire is detected by the early warning system, an immediate and overwhelming response should immediately be initiated by air and land, when possible.

Smokey the Bear was right when he said, “only you can prevent forest fires.” But today his words are not just for the campers and hikers, they are for the politicians. Relying on county and town fire departments, which are often understaffed and inadequately equipped, to find and extinguish wildfires until they grow massive enough to qualify for federal fire resources, is no longer acceptable. It’s time to get serious about fire.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions. I particularly look forward to hearing from those with relevant and informed experience.

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