A year ago this week, 19 firefighters died in a holocaust of flame in brush that hadn’t burned in 50 years. The bells tolled for them across the state on the one-year anniversary of their deaths and the emergency frequencies sounded a tone for them at the hour of their deaths.
These remembrances made us weep.
All day long, politicians sent emails brimming with pious statements to honor the courage of those fallen firefighters.
Those press releases filled us with a bleak and helpless anger. The politicians whose inaction helped doom those firefighters continue to substitute meaningless words for concrete actions.
So today — right this minute — hundreds of other firefighters are putting their lives on the line because the politicians and forest managers failed to act.
Please take note of today’s front-page story about the San Juan Fire, which has burned 6,400 acres near Show Low. The human-caused fire started on the Apache Reservation then spread to national forest land.
Fortunately, the fire on one side burned into an area that had been thinned as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Program. The Forest Service launched this program more than a decade ago, promising to provide local timber harvesters small trees from 15,000 acres annually. That promise was supposed to provide the basis for a revival of a local wood products industry. The project involved a subsidy of about $800 per acre, plus a chance to make a profit on the small trees.
But usually the subsidies only covered about 5,000 acres worth. The project has cleared only about 50,000 acres in the past decade instead of the more than 150,000 called for in the original schedule.
Nonetheless, the project essentially saved Springerville and Alpine when the Wallow Fire hit the cleared zone in 2011. The fierce crown fire dropped to the ground at the thinned area, where firefighters stopped it on the outskirts of those communities.
The project proved its worth again this weekend. Fire commanders said an area cleared by the White Mountain Stewardship Project stopped the eastern and southern spread of the San Juan Fire — and gave firefighters a safe zone to start a backfire.
So, what’s happened to this successful program?
It has more or less died. The Forest Service quit providing the $800 per acre subsidy, partly in hopes that the much more ambitious Four Forest Restoration Initiative would kick in. Modeled on the White Mountain Stewardship Project on a grand scale, 4FRI was supposed to provide a contractor a guarantee of the small trees from 30,000 to 50,000 acres a year — the first installment on a project intended to eventually thin a million acres. The scale of the operation would make the per-acre subsidy unnecessary. But the Forest Service couldn’t seem to pick a contractor with the experience or the financing to build the new mills and bio-fuel plants necessary to handle the enormous amount of wood. Barely launched, the project has fallen far behind schedule already.
Meanwhile, the tree thickets continue to grow far faster than the thinning projects progress.
All of the congressmen, senators and Forest Service administrators who have not made thinning this dangerously overgrown forest their overriding priority have dishonored the memory of those 19 firefighters.
But it’s not just the Forest Service.
The Yarnell Fire mostly burned on state trust land — just as dangerously overgrown as the federal land. Even with the searing deaths of those firefighters fresh in mind, the state Legislature utterly failed to deal with the issue. The state has done far less than the Forest Service to thin its lands — and relies mostly on federal firefighters. State lawmakers refused to provide even a pittance to thin state lands. But that didn’t stop them from sending out hypocritical press releases blaming the federal government.
You can bring the responsibility down to the county and local level as well. Star Valley, Payson and Gila County have done nothing in the past year to improve fire codes or adopt a wildland-urban interface code. They’ve relied mostly on lip service and volunteer efforts to thin overgrown lots in town. They’ve done virtually nothing to merge and bolster the efforts of the seven fire departments in the region, all facing growing financial problems.
That’s why we crumpled those meaningless political press releases lamenting the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, which died trying to get to a cleared safe zone a rancher had created although not a single code or regulation required it.
One release said, “They are American heroes that Arizona can call her own and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
Please. Spare the rhetoric. You have only one way to honor them. Act to give their sacrifice meaning and to spare the need that any other member of the brotherhood of firefighters will ever again have to stand between the flames and the communities they have vowed to defend.
We’ve wasted the past year. Don’t waste another.