On the afternoon of September 6, 2018, the U.S. Forest Service made a fateful decision to allow a wildfire to burn on Mount Nebo near Spanish Fork. A week later, the Pole Creek Fire and its sister fire on Bald Mountain escaped and caused millions of dollars in damage to private property and State lands and resources.
The fires cost the public more than $30 million dollars to fight, not including $10 million additional dollars the state of Utah spent to mitigate fire-related flooding on U.S. Highway 89.
Forest officers made the decision to allow a 40-foot log to smolder and burn because they felt conditions were right to implement the Forest Service chief’s policy of allowing “unplanned fire to burn in the right place at the right time” to meet natural resource management objectives of reintroducing fire to “fire depleted ecosystems.”
The forest supervisor would later say he owed it to future generations to allow the fire to burn. He didn’t mention what good could have been accomplished by spending the estimated $60 million dollars spent on fire suppression and flood mitigation, and pending millions the government will pay out in federal tort claims, to do thoughtful forest management, minus all the property damage and widespread loss of public forests.
The alarming new policy of using “catch and release” wildfires to manage public forests is coming under increasing scrutiny in federal courts and resulting in escalating settlements with damaged landowners. Whatever the Forest Service’s intent in allowing these fires to burn, the outcome is increasingly familiar around the West: The new federal wildfire policy is burning our national forests to destruction and harming private lands.
Private property owners and local and state governments are paying the price with little recourse to affect wildfire policy decisions. The Utah State forester was firmly opposed to letting the Pole Creek fire burn and said so. State officials could do little to change the federal decision. Private landowners could do even less. Ordered off their property as the fire approached, landowners returned weeks later to find that federal firefighters had used their lands for anchor points, lighting private ground on fire on purpose to stop the federal fire.
Knowing that federal officers will make mistakes and cause damage, Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) allowing harmed parties to make claims for damages and to receive compensation. Property owners whose land was damaged by the fire or by the flooding following the fire are now making claims for compensation. One recent claim is for more than $3 million dollars.
Unfortunately, the scenario played out in Pole Creek will repeat itself across Utah and the West in coming years. The Forest Service has not produced the required environmental impact statement or record of decision that would allow the public and other government partners to weigh in on the unplanned fire use policy. Congress has not authorized the use of appropriated wildfire fighting funds to pay for resource management not related to direct fire suppression.
Challenged in federal court and by multiple tort claims since 2012, the Forest Service settles rather than have the broader discussion about wildfire policy run amok that may change their current unfettered prerogatives. Management by wildfire is the last policy that Forest Service land managers can apply at will with no oversight from anyone.
The fate of our federal forests and increasingly widespread damage to private, local and state government property should not be left to federal bureaucrats making decisions in the dark of night. Utah, and the West, deserve to be heard.