The intense wildfires and associated losses during 2012 inspired Utah's new wildfire policy. Credit: Thomas Peterson, Sanpete County Fire Warden

Topic: Fuels treatment economics Wildfire Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Making Lemonade from Lemons: How Intense Wildfire Seasons Yielded Utah’s New Wildfire Policy

Author: Jennifer Hansen, Nathan Barrons

In January, I wrote a blog about Utah’s comprehensive wildland fire management policy, which passed in the 2016 Legislative Session. The policy is based on the principle of risk reduction, wherein the state pays for large and extended wildland fire attack in exchange for local governments implementing prevention, preparedness and mitigation actions. In response to the post, I received several questions, but one question, in particular, was repeatedly asked: “What started it?”

Aerial view of a wildfire burning in the wildland-urban interface

Machine Gun Fire of 2010. Credit: Fitzgerald J. Petersen, Unified Fire Authority

The answer to that question is two-fold. First, Utah’s earlier wildfire policy was flawed and needed improvement. Although it had been in place for over a decade, it didn’t allow municipalities to participate in cooperative agreements with the state on suppression work, even though they had incorporated lands that were at risk of wildfire and had the authority for fire suppression. In 2010, the Machine Gun Fire cost the city of Herriman over $1 million in suppression. Consequently, the mayor of Herriman was one of our greatest allies during the policy revision.

Second, during the summer of 2012, Utah had a particularly active wildland fire season. Fires throughout the state caused considerable damage to resources, infrastructure and personal property. Following that severe fire season, Governor Gary Herbert charged state land managers with the task of developing a cooperative strategy to reduce the size, intensity and frequency of catastrophic wildfires in Utah.

Following the governor’s decree, the Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Steering Committee was convened. The committee functions under the authority of the Utah Conservation Commission and is chaired by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The steering committee coordinates local, state and federal governments, natural resource agencies and private sector stakeholders regarding wildfire issues. The committee recommended that both the state and the affected stakeholders make a significant investment in mitigation.

Utah lawmakers consequently authorized the initial funding of the Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy, allocating approximately $2 million of state funds. The significance of the allotment cannot be overstated in that it represents the first time that state funds have been dedicated to wildfire issues not directly related to suppression. Specifically, the initial funding could only be utilized for implementation efforts, primarily fuels reduction projects. Six regional working groups were established and are using a risk assessment process to evaluate and prioritize areas at risk.

The three interdependent goals of the National Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy are at the heart of Utah’s Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy. As the program matures, the state will improve landscape resilience through fuels mitigation and prescribed fire projects, assist and educate communities with preparing for and withstanding fire events, and continue to provide and improve fire suppression response.

Perhaps most importantly, with sustained funding, the time and efforts of dedicated professionals can be focused on these pressing issues. Governor Herbert explicitly expressed his desire to limit our citizens’ exposure to the cost and effects of catastrophic wildfire. The state legislature has thus authorized an initial expenditure of taxpayer funds. Using those funds, land managers are now in the process of implementing a holistic approach to dealing with Utah’s wildfire challenges.

More information about Utah’s Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy is available online.

In conclusion, 2012 was a very costly fire season to Utah’s taxpayers, and that stimulated interest in taking a statewide, legislative approach. The resulting Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy incorporates the National Cohesive Strategy, distributes the responsibility between local and state government, and promotes investment in mitigation, prevention and preparedness actions.

Written by: Nathan Barrons (Utah’s Catastrophic Wildfire Strategy’s coordinator and the National Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy’ s Utah liaison) and
Jennifer Hansen (Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands’ wildland-urban interface program coordinator)  

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