The federal government has established a Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to figure out how the federal government can cope with a growing plague of megafires in the West.

The commission will coordinate billions of new spending on wildfire prevention included in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Oak Creek) was one co-sponsor in the House, as was Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in the Senate.

The bill to set up the committee to cope with the record-breaking series of town-destroying wildfires drew rare bipartisan support, with Mitt Romney (R-Utah) co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

The Infrastructure Act bill required the establishment of such a commission to develop new responses to wildfires. In 2021, wildfires charred 500,000 acres in Arizona alone — and millions of acres throughout the West. Total acres burned in the first six months of 2021 were 22% higher than the year previous — which itself set records.

Throughout the West in 2021, 60,000 fires burned 110 million acres — 53,000 of them human-caused.

“Our states are facing historic numbers of wildfires and desperately need assistance with fire prevention, mitigation, and response,” said Kelly. “Earlier this year, we introduced legislation to establish a Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission because existing fire policies must be adapted to meet today’s challenges. A commission that brings experts from local communities and the private and public sectors will help improve strategies to prevent future wildfires from becoming catastrophic disasters across the West. We are proud that this commission is now a reality and look forward to seeing the recommendations it puts forth.”

In June, Senators Kelly and Romney introduced the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2021, bipartisan and bicameral legislation to establish a commission of federal and non-federal stakeholders — including city and county level representation — to study and recommend fire prevention, mitigation, management, and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands. This bill passed out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously in July.

Companion legislation was introduced in the House by Representatives John Curtis (R-Utah) and O’Halleran.

Both chambers have now approved the bill, despite continued deadlock on a second major infrastructure package and near-unanimous Republican opposition to the first infrastructure bill in the House. The Senate passed the measure on a rare, broad bipartisan vote.

Senators Kelly and Romney advocated for including their wildland fire commission bill during negotiations for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate in August. President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law on Nov. 15, 2021. The recent announcement of the establishment of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of the Interior (DOI) and Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The initiative comes as previous efforts to shift federal policy have faltered.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative has for the past decade sought to protect forested communities and vital watersheds by thinning 2 million acres in northern Arizona. The initial plan envisioned re-inventing the logging industry to turn a profit on the millions of small trees and biomass saplings and wood scraps. Tree densities in the past 100 years have grown from about 100 per acre to 1,000 per acre across most of the Arizona forests, thanks to wildfire suppression, grazing and logging focused on big, fire-resistant trees.

However, the low-value biomass amounting to perhaps 50 tons per acre foiled repeated efforts to find a contractor who would turn a profit without a taxpayer subsidy to cope with the wood scraps and saplings. The Novo Power biomass burning plant in Snowflake currently represents one of the few viable markets for biomass — but it is threatened by the Arizona Corporation Commission’s refusal to require power companies to generate a tiny fraction of their energy from biomass.

The Forest Service finally abandoned its effort to find a single forest restoration contractor and has instead gone to a piecemeal approach. In areas like the White Mountains, the Forest Service will contract with a struggling network of local mills to continue logging projects focused on creating buffer zones around forested communities like Pinetop and Show Low. In the Tonto Forest with its chaparral and oak-pine woodlands, 4FRI will focus on prescribed burns and much more limited, subsidized thinning projects.

This shift will require either partners who can subsidize thinning projects or a lot more federal money, including funding from the Infrastructure Act.

However, the evidence continues to grow that drought, the impact of climate change and a century of mismanagement will produce ever more devastating fire seasons unless the federal government makes dramatic and effective changes in land management policies.

Between 1970 and 2015, the number of fires that have burned more than 1,000 acres has tripled. Wildfires now burn six times more acreage than they did in 1970. The region’s fire season has grown by 78 days, especially in California, Washington and Oregon.

California saw a five-fold increase in the area burned from 1972 to 2018 and an eightfold increase in summer fires. One study estimated that an increase in average temperatures globally accounted for roughly half the increase in acres burned between 1984 and 2015.

The fires have peaked in the past two extended fire seasons. As of October 2021, 13 million acres had burned in the U.S. The federal government spent $3.3 billion fighting those fires, which consumed almost 15,000 structures. That includes 1 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico, with suppression costs of $192 million and 63 structures destroyed. In California, fires consumed about 6 million acres, destroyed some 9,000 structures and cost $1.6 billion to fight.

However, the suppression costs represent only a fraction of the full economic cost of the wildfires, according to an analysis of wildfire costs in 2017 by Headwaters Economics. That study put the cost of suppression and insurance claims at $14 billion. But the total short-term economic cost totaled $100 billion. Meanwhile, the health care costs related to exposures to wildfire smoke from 2008 to 2012 came to $450 billion — more than $110 billion annually.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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