Fires that have charred 5 million acres on the West Coast and killed at least 27 people have highlighted the long, frustrating, stalled effort to avoid catastrophe in Rim County and the White Mountains.
“The death of our citizens is simply not an option,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, whose congressional district includes much of northeastern Arizona — including Flagstaff, Rim Country and the White Mountains.
He said the decade-long delay in pushing forward the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) shows the shattered and ineffective system for managing federal lands in the West.
“It’s been ridiculous. I don’t understand why we don’t look at this in a broader perspective,” said O’Halleran, who sits on the House agriculture committee and this week drafted a bipartisan demand for action to fund forest restoration projects — the best chance at reducing megafires like the ones consuming whole towns in California, Washington and Oregon. Arizona had its own frightening fire season earlier this year, with two different fires threatening at times Tonto Basin and Pine.
The Natural Resources Working Group recently mirrored that frustration in a meeting in the White Mountains. The industry group led by the Eastern Arizona Counties Association meets regularly to share information about logging projects offered by the Forest Service necessary to keep a struggling network of sawmills and biomass energy plants alive.
“Right now, wildfires are doing the talking,” said Novopower President Brad Worsley. The Snowflake biomass power facility generates about 28 megawatts of electricity annually by burning the wood scraps from thinning projects. The plant makes it possible to thin about 15,000 to 20,000 acres of overgrown forest annually. “When most of the western United States is on fire and San Francisco is orange, people start caring more. We’ve had some success after catastrophic wildfires in getting attention — we’re becoming a bit of light on a hill.”
The Forest Service has made little headway on thinning 4 million acres of Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests. A century of logging, cattle grazing, fire suppression, lawsuits and mismanagement have turned the fire-adapted forest into a death trap. Tree densities have increased from about 50 per acre to more like 1,000 per acre.
The Forest Service has gone through at least three different 4FRI contractors, who in nearly a decade have mechanically thinned about 15,000 acres — instead of the 50,000 every year originally envisioned. The Forest Service has cleared some 500,000 acres for thinning, but the contractors can’t make money on the contracts without some way to dispose of the biomass that makes up about half of the material they must remove.
Hope glimmered last year when the Arizona Corporation Commission considered requiring power companies to generate at least 90 megawatts of electricity annually from biomass, which would have supported more than 50,000 acres of thinning projects annually for at least the next 20 years. However, the commission rejected the idea on a 3-2 vote. Incumbent Republican Commissioner Leah Marquez Peterson is seeking reelection on a platform supporting the mandate. Democrats Bill Mundell, Shea Stanfield and Anna Tovar have all said they support a requirement that power companies increase use of renewable energy, but haven’t committed to supporting the biomass mandate. Power from biomass costs more than power from solar or wind sources, but it’s considered renewable energy. Power plants capture most of the heat-trapping pollutants from burning biomass, especially when compared to burning the same fuel in a wildfire that can inject smoke into the upper atmosphere.
In the meantime, a year-long delay by the U.S. Forest Service in awarding another round of contracts for thinning projects in the White Mountains and Rim Country has cast the future of the struggling, existing timber industry into doubt — just when the need for restoration has become dire.
O’Halleran’s Sept. 15 letter to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committees seeks a series of congressional hearings on wildfires “particularly in the wildland-urban interface, where we are currently seeing death and destruction.”
After years of lobbying, Congress did finally establish a separate firefighting fund for the Forest Service, after firefighting costs rose from less than $1 billion to almost $3 billion annually. Congress also gave the Forest Service the legal authority to enter into 20-year logging and stewardship contracts. However, the thorny problem of the biomass and the need for major investments in new mills and power plants have stalled restoration efforts, now necessary on a massive scale.
“Wildfire has become a devastating threat to citizens in communities across the nation. Climate change is clearly contributing to the increase in conditions that allow fires to grow to hundreds of thousands of acres,” wrote O’Halleran in his appeal for a series of congressional hearings on wildfire.
The West Coast megafires have pushed the smoldering issue of climate change, wildfires and forest management onto the national agenda — with fires killing dozens, consuming billions of dollars in homes and infrastructure and causing long-term damage to watersheds in the midst of epic drought.
President Donald Trump on a campaign swing through California blamed the fires on mismanagement of the forest, which is mostly owned by the federal government. He denied a link between the unprecedented size of the fires and climate change.
Fire experts say climate plays a role — but so does mismanagement, the construction of an additional 32 million homes in the wildland-urban interface in the past 20 years, the enormous increase in tree densities, severe drought and other factors.
Arizona State University Fire Historian Stephen Pyne, also a former wildland firefighter, argues that sweeping changes in ecosystems have spawned the runaway growth in megafires — the wildfire equivalent of an Ice Age.
“Even without climate change, a serious fire problem would exist. U.S. land agencies reformed polices to reinstate ‘good fire’ 50 years ago — but outside a few locales, it has not been achievable at scale. No single factor drives it. Fire is a driverless car that barrels down the road integrating whatever is around,” said Pyne in a commentary published in High Country News.
NASA’s website research summary Global Climate Change notes that drought and temperature shifts have played a role in the dramatic increase in megafires. The average temperature of the planet has increased by 2 degrees since 1880, with another 2- to 4-degree increase predicted by many climate models in the next century. Most experts attribute much of the warming to heat trapping pollutants, but a variety of other factors including variations in the sun’s output can also affect global temperatures.
Most experts agree that the only way to restore fire to its natural role in Arizona’s ponderosa pine forest is to thin millions of acres, with a combination of logging projects and prescribed fire. The Forest Service has stepped up the use of managed fire but hasn’t provided subsidies or found a way to handle the biomass needed to revive the state’s logging industry. The handful of mills and wood products operations still operating are mostly on the ragged edge economically. Mills are currently thriving due to a 300% increase in lumber prices this year. But that has only underscored the frustration of the yearslong delay in awarding the next round of 4FRI contracts and issuing a biomass mandate.
“Thank goodness for the record-high pricing in lumber,” said Worsley at the industry group meeting this week. “But we’re dying on the vine. None of us can step in and get financing without long-term contracts. We can step back and say ‘that’s life,’ but how can a mill operator or power plant get help from a financier if they don’t know if they have more contracts in the next two years.”
He lamented the continued delay of 4FRI. “If there was ever a time to get financing for the forest industry — it’s now — with sky high lumber prices. If they’d made the contract award in September, that would have been really great. I have no idea now what the industry is going to do.”
O’Halleran expressed similar frustration. “The Forest Service has postponed contracts again and again. You can’t expect people to work in the forest on a year-to-year basis. You have to have contracts that are meaningful. I was just shocked at the corporation commission vote (on biomass). The bottom line is that it’s going to cost money. But you’re protecting lives and resources and recreation and watersheds. This is devastating to all those elements — and all those jobs.
“Our job is to keep this at the forefront — because these fires are going to happen again and again and again,” concluded O’Halleran.