State Forestry Hopes To Double Firefighting Budget

Fallout from Yarnell tragedy

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Staggered by the mounting costs of the Yarnell Hill Fire and dire fire predictions for 2014, the State Division of Forestry hopes the Legislature will double its firefighting budget this year.

State Forester Scott Hunt wants an extra $6.2 million this year to replace firefighting vehicles and get better communications equipment.

Investigations have revealed that a failed strategy, a reluctance to call in expensive aerial bombers and poor communications all contributed to the deaths of 19 firefighters battling the Yarnell fire, which was directed by the State Division of Forestry.

The push to boost the budget for fighting fires on state-owned lands mirrors the struggle of the U.S. Forest Service to cover the rising costs of fighting fires. The Forest Service has a budget of nearly $5 billion, but firefighting costs last year topped $2 billion.

The Forest Service had been forced in recent years repeatedly to divert money from forest thinning and restoration into its firefighting budget, as mega fires have spread and multiplied.

House Appropriations Chairman John Kavanagh has called the state forestry’s request for a big increase in its firefighting budget “workable.”

However, he also has also called for a review of proposals made in 2007 to require changes in building codes and zoning laws in areas vulnerable to wildfires, together with requirements for tree and brush removal.

A Governor’s task force in 2007 recommended an array of such measures to reduce the rapidly escalating wildfire risk throughout the state — especially in forested areas like Rim Country.

The state did provide limited funding for grants to provide brush clearing, but those grants have shrunk in the past several years. Pine Strawberry had an aggressive program to pick up brush cleared from lots by residents, but the grants on which the community relied have dried up and the program ended this year.

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A shift in the wind saved Beaver Valley from the Water Wheel Fire, which these firefighters battled.

Rim Country has done little to reduce wildfire risk. The Payson Building Advisory Board recently killed an effort by the Fire Department here to convince the town to overhaul its building codes to reduce wildfire risk. The council has not taken up the question after a split vote by the building advisory board.

Gila County recently overhauled its building codes, but did nothing to move toward a firewise building code, recommended by experts in fire-prone areas like Rim Country. Such codes require fire-resistant materials on roofs, since big fires can throw out embers for a mile or more that can easily set a building on fire. Firewise codes also require fire-resistant building materials, covers over vents that might let embers drift into attics, and construction of porches and eaves in a way that minimizes the chance that the close approach of a brush fire will set the building on fire. The county building codes take little account of the extreme wildfire risk throughout the region and the county has approved many small, unincorporated, virtually indefensible communities in the middle of thick forests.

Payson’s ordinance actually makes it harder to clear brush and trees to protect structures, since it tries to maximize the number of trees in the community.

The disastrous Yarnell Fire demonstrated the extreme danger of trying to protect woefully unprepared communities in an era of mega fires. Yarnell was surrounded by thick brush that hadn’t burned in 50 years and did not have firewise building standards or policies. An analysis showed that only 10 percent of the houses with even modest brush clearing around them burned, while 47 percent of the unprepared homes were consumed in the flames.

The requested increase in the state forestry budget for fighting fires represents a small fraction of the cost of the Yarnell Fire, which killed 19 members of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

The 8,300-acre fire consumed 127 homes. The cost of the fire and the property destroyed totaled about $5.4 million. In addition, the state will pay out $7 million immediately to the families of the dead firefighters and another $1 million annually indefinitely. Prescott has already said it can’t pay the $24 million in owes in lump sum payments nor the $52 million it owes in long-term payments to the survivors of the firefighters.

The division of forestry’s request for a firefighting budget increase comes on the brink of what may prove to be another dangerous fire season.

Drought has returned to most of the state as a result of a so-far dry winter. With neither La Niña or El Niño conditions established in the eastern Pacific, rainfall patterns remain relatively unpredictable. The winter so far has been abnormally dry, with no winter storm pattern in prospect.

Both California and Nevada have large areas already back into extreme drought, with little snowfall so far in the Sierras and Rocky Mountains far below normal.

Fortunately, Northern Gila County is close to normal for the year — thanks to a late monsoon. However, the winter months so far have turned abnormally dry.

The National Weather Service’s Drought Monitor predicts that Arizona will slip back into extreme or severe drought by March and remain in that condition through the end of the year.

The largest fires in state history have all burned since the Rodeo Chediski Fire nearly consumed Show Low and forced evacuations in Rim Country in 2002. Wildfires have burned between 100,000 and a million acres every year in Arizona since then.

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