This year’s Arizona fire season has already set records as the worst in state history. Weather conditions, coupled with the unhealthy state of our forests, served up the perfect recipe for multiple catastrophic mega-fires.
The Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona ravaged over 538,000 acres in the picturesque White Mountains, surpassing 2002’s Rodeo-Chediski Fire as the largest in state history. The Horseshoe 2, Monument, and Murphy Fires have blackened another 300,000 acres in the southern part of the state and destroyed over 60 homes. And fire season isn’t over yet.
Arizonans are now rightfully asking how things got so bad and what can be done to guard against future catastrophic fires?
Simply put, our forests are unhealthy. Decades of mismanagement have left us with a congested forest, creating a massive wildfire fuel problem. The sad thing is that we have known for a long time how to fix this — we must treat the forests with a combination of thinning and prescribed burning to remove the fuel that has built up over the years. Yet, the number of acres treated each year is just a fraction of the acres consumed by fire each season.
While touring the aftermath of the Wallow Fire, I saw firsthand the success of forest thinning projects in and around the communities of Alpine, Nutrioso and Eagar. I also heard reports of similar successes in areas affected by the Horseshoe 2 Fire. In treated areas, the fire was far more manageable, dropping to the ground, making firefighting safer and more effective. This helped save countless homes and businesses, for which I am grateful. However, it’s important not to forget this point either — what attracts people to these areas in the first place? For many, it’s the tree-covered mountains, wildlife, and other treasures in the larger landscape.
Landscape-scale restoration is urgently needed to protect and preserve not just communities, but the backcountry as well. Arizona could be headed in this direction with the launch of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) in northern Arizona and the Firescape Project in southeastern Arizona.
The goal of 4-FRI is to strategically treat roughly a million acres across four national forests dominated by ponderosa pine over the next 20 years. Bear in mind, that’s about as many acres as burned in Arizona just this fire season. The goal of the Firescape is to create fire-resilient landscapes across the mountain ranges that make up the Sky Islands. Streamlining the environmental analysis process to accomplish landscape-scale restoration planning and implementation is sorely needed for these projects and others being planned across the nation. Implementing these efforts in Arizona and addressing environmental requirements should be a priority for the Obama administration if we are going to protect the forest that remains.
From a fiscal perspective, the federal cost for this work pales in comparison to the true costs of a catastrophic wildfire. The costs of fighting the fires and reconstruction afterward far exceed the prevention costs. It’s like a medical situation, where preventive care can save you a lot of money in the long run, but it does require an up-front commitment.
And this is about more than just fire prevention. The proper management of forests will make them healthier, with better flora and fauna, and an ecology that is sustainable.
The work ahead to recover from the fires this season is daunting. First is the work to mitigate the effects of flooding caused by the monsoon rains that are upon us. We must also try to mitigate the effect of the fire on the economy. In many of the Wallow Fire-impacted communities, including tribal communities, this means getting in the forest and implementing fire-damaged tree removal while those trees still have economic value. Ranchers grazing on federal land will need help identifying alternate pastures on which to graze. Recreation on the national forest system provides much of the income for the communities most directly affected by the fire. Timely efforts to reduce the severity of the flooding, to restore watersheds, and to sustain wildlife are necessary to produce the conditions for accessing and enjoying these public lands.
Our work is just beginning.