June 27 (UPI) -- An environmental group rejected comments by a Utah politician who blamed "tree-huggers" and "rock-lickers" for the destructiveness of the Brian Head Fire in southwest Utah, which has grown to 46,000 acres.
Utah State Rep. Michael Noel on Monday said environmentalists would rather see the Dixie National Forest burn down than to see logging occur in the state.
"When we turned the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers and the tree-huggers and the rock-lickers, we turned our history over," Noel said in a press conference. "We're going to lose our watershed and we're going to lose our soils and we're going to lose our wildlife and were going to lose our scenery -- the very things you people wanted to protect. It's just plain stupidity."
Noel said environmentalists have stopped the logging of trees killed by bark beetles. He said the dead trees are the fuel needed for a devastating fire to spread.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the environmental groups Noel blamed, said climate change and suppressing naturally occurring fires are the reasons Utah's forests are inordinately flammable.
"Noel and others are exploiting this fire to mislead the public. The truth is that climate change, drought, historic fire suppression and wind all play roles in the severity of fires. There is no single cause and no easy solution," SUWA legal director Steve Bloch told The Salt Lake Tribune. "It's shameful that Noel would seize on the dire straits folks find themselves in to fan the flames with his rhetoric."
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands late Monday said the Brian Head Fire is 10 percent contained. More than 1,400 personnel are involved in the firefighting effort, utilizing 13 helicopters and 39 fire engines.
The Utah forestry agency said winds, including 30 mph gusts that fanned 100-foot flame lengths, increased overall fire activity on Monday. The fire was started June 17 by a resident burning weeds and has been fueled by hot, dry conditions and strong winds.
Several communities have been evacuated: Upper Bear Valley, Panguitch Lake, Horse Valley, Beaver Dam, Castle Valley, Blue Springs, Rainbow Meadows, Mammoth Creek, Dry Lakes, Second Left Hand Canyon, and the town of Brian Head.
The forestry agency said windy, dry and warm weather will continue through Wednesday, adding that firefighters are expected to be more successful with supression when the fire most past areas where it is fueled by old-growth timber to areas where there is more sage and grass.
The Brian Head Fire is one of several wildfires affecting the U.S. Southwest: The Frye Fire in Arizona's Coronado National Forest has burned more than 38,400 acres; the Bonita Fire in New Mexico's Carson National Forest has grown to about 7,500 acres; and the Red Springs Fire in Nevada has burned more than 4,600 acres.