Two enormous wildfires burning in Utah have displaced more than 6,000 people. As of Saturday afternoon, the two fires had grown to cover a combined 86,107 acres, wreaking havoc on air quality around the state.
The two fires — at Pole Creek and Bald Mountain in Utah and Juab counties, respectively — could be the most destructive in an already dangerous fire season, according to Gov. Gary Herbert (R).
Among Herbert’s concerns were the multitude of homes directly in the paths of the widlfires. As of Saturday evening, the fires were reportedly within half a mile of residences.
I’m so heartbroken. This was my home for the first 20 years of my life. I spent more time up these mountains and canyons than anywhere else in the world. And now the fire is threatening the homes of my friends and family, including my parents. Oh please let it rain in Utah 💔 pic.twitter.com/1EC8hvWKTm
— Kinley ✨ (@ReadyForIt1989) September 15, 2018
Officials have said that nearly 600 firefighters are assigned to flight the blazes, with 600 more en route, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The fires have been fed by high winds in the area, ultimately moving faster than firefighters can handle.
Officials warned that air quality would be “at its worst” again Sunday morning, though it is expected to clear as the day goes on. Forecasters reportedly expect the wind to carry smoke from the conflagrations as far as Wyoming.
According to local reports, these problems were compounded by a third fire sparked Saturday in Herriman, Utah. Fast-moving winds, measured at speeds up to 40 miles an hour, enabled the fire grow to about 100 acres, forcing further evacuations. This fire destroyed two homes and one outbuilding before being contained on Saturday evening. A minor is reportedly in custody for starting the blaze with a smoke bomb.
Herriman Wildfire 90% contained. Evacuations lifted.
Fire caused by juvenile playing with fireworks. pic.twitter.com/mTDhdz4dE7
— SLCo Emergency Mngt. (@SLCoEmerMngt) September 16, 2018
The fires come just weeks after Utah’s Lieutenant Gov. Spencer Cox (R) said there was “clear evidence” that climate change was playing a role in Utah’s devastating fire season.
“There’s very clear evidence of a climate change — that the climate has been changing for a long time,” he said last month, as another fire raged in Sanpete County, Utah. “Certainly, this feels much more like the new norm when it comes to fires.”
Earlier this year, Utah lawmakers passed a resolution — sponsored by a Republican — recognizing climate change and calling for “sound science” when addressing climate change and discussing solutions.
And just two weeks ago, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is now running for senate in Utah, acknowledged that climate change was making Utah’s wildfires more dangerous and called on the federal government for assistance.
“[Climate change] means wildfires are going to become a regular part of life and more and more dangerous,” he said at the end of last month. “We have to recognize that business as usual is not going to solve the problem. We have to step up in a far more aggressive way.”
— FOX 13 News Utah (@fox13) September 14, 2018
According to the Tribune, Romney proposed “more work to reduce a buildup of fuels in forests, create more firebreaks and defensible areas around communities, establish more regional wildfire centers with aircraft and other equipment to quickly attack fires before they get big, and use more early-warning technology to identify fires as they start.”
Investing in those possible solutions would be costly, he acknowledged, but proposed that, because the federal government owns so much of Utah’s land, they could pick up most of the costs.
“I would propose that the financing of this major investment that is going to be required be split based upon who owns the land,” he said. “So the federal government has 66 percent of the land in Utah, so they pick up 66 percent of the costs. If they want a lower share of the costs, they can give the land back to us.”