A special legislative committee set up to investigate wildfire control efforts in the state wrapped up with a report documenting the problem – but no recommendations for changes in state policy.
The Forest and Wildfire Management Ad hoc Committee chaired by Rep. David Cook (R-Globe) probed the decade-long failure of large-scale forest restoration efforts, the forest-thinning bottleneck caused by the lack of a market for biomass and the sometimes destructive reliance on backburns in an emergency.
“As a result of the five hearings we held round the state,” said Cook in a release, “we are better informed of the critical issues that can be addressed before Arizona families and communities are impacted by new catastrophic wildfires and post-fire flooding. In Arizona, we unfortunately know all too well that it’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if’.”
Cook represents the redrawn state legislative District 7, which includes all of Gila County plus portions of Navajo, Apache, Yavapai and Pinal counties.
Other members of the Wildfire Committee included Representative Gail Griffin, Representative Tim Dunn, Representative Andres Cano, and Representative Stephanie Stahl Hamilton.
The committee held five hearings to take testimony from an array of forest and wildfire experts, including the Forest Service, the state forester, ranchers, critics of the impact of backburns in a last ditch effort to stop the spread of wildfires and officials directing Flagstaff’s effort to reduce wildfire risk.
The Committee considered protocols and accountability for reducing devastation to the public, communities, and businesses from fire management and post fire hazards. That includes whether the state and federal governments provide adequate services and resources.
Committee investigates knotty problem
Mostly, the committee hearings revealed the intractable problem created by a century of forest mismanagement, which has created a tinderbox forest with tree densities of 1,000 per acre across millions of acres. The 20-year megadrought and the rapid growth of unprotected communities in the forest have supercharged the problem.
The committee’s report led off with a list of bills passed by the legislature last year, mostly providing limited state funding to provide money for forest thinning projects and to repair damage to roads and infrastructure caused by post-wildfire floods and debris flows.
However, most of the measures amounted to pocket change, given the scale of the problem. Thinning the millions of acres of overgrown forests in the Tonto, Coconino, Prescott and Apache Sitgreaves forests vulnerable to town-destroying crown fires will cost billions. The Forest Service maintains it can’t afford to undertake the needed thinning without the help of industry. However, the attempt to find a contractor to do the work has been stymied by the problem of the low-value biomass composed of brush, branches and saplings.
Providing a $1,000-per-acre taxpayer subsidy to deal with the low-value biomass would cost $6 billion. That approach worked in the White Mountains Stewardship program – which saved Alpine and perhaps Springerville from the Wallow Fire. But the Forest Service in the course of a decade provided enough supplemental funding to thin about 50,000 acres, before ending the program.
Laws passed in the last session provide more than $100 million in new state funding for thinning, wildfire fighting crews and help for private landowners like ranchers seeking to repair infrastructure. Bills include:
• SB1146: Provides $10 million in emergency funding for private landowners to cope with wildfire and flood damage.
• HB 2580: Directs state forester to work with the federal government when it comes to wildfire protection, mitigation and suppression.
• HB2182: Makes it easier for livestock operators to get state and federal funding to repair infrastructure after wildfires.
• HB 2862: Provides $784,000 for inmate firefighting crews and $1.1 million for post-release firefighting crews as well as $3 million for vegetation removal, $2.1 million for Forest Service thinning projects, $65 million for wildfire emergency responses and $39 million for wildfire mitigation.
• Budget: $10 million for a livestock operator fire and flood assistance grant program.
• HCM 2006: Allows the federal government to include wildfire and flooding costs in the threshold to receive certain federal grants.
• HCM 2009: Urged federal government to add Farm Service Agency offices in Arizona to help ranchers and farmers apply for grant money to repair wildfire and flood damage.
Portions of the five hearings focused on complaints by ranchers and others about the damage done to private property when the Forest Service resorted to backburns to stop the spread of major wildfires, including the Bush, Telegraph, Museum and Woodbury fires.
Biomass bottleneck stalls thinning
The Forest Service has made only minimal progress in thinning the forest after a decade of effort, mostly due to the lack of a market for biomass – after the Arizona Corporation Commission essentially repealed its requirement that power companies generate a certain amount of electricity from burning biomass. Efforts to use the biomass to manufacture jet fuel or high-tech plywood have largely floundered. As a result, in recent years, megafires have repeatedly menaced forested communities. Sometimes, backburns offer the only way to slow those runaway fires. However, backburns are a risky strategy in the tinder-dry conditions that drive the most dangerous fires.
Rep. Cook operates a ranch in Globe, which suffered damage in several wildfires. Ranchers in Tonto Basin also lost fences, buildings and rangeland to backfires used to stop the Bush Fire from advancing on Deer Creek, Tonto Basin and Payson.
Globe ranchers lament impact of backfires
A fifth committee hearing in Globe focused mostly on the ranchers’ frustrations with the danger posed by the use of backfires – as well as the difficulty of qualifying for state or federal grants to either prevent fires or repair infrastructure.
Superior Mayor Mila Besich said most of the federal grants for thinning projects are reserved for “tall timber” forests – where loggers can make a profit on the timber. That leaves few options for lower-elevation areas, which need to remove juniper, pinyon pine, oak brush and other low-value fuels. She noted that it will take a decade at the current pace to even clear a buffer zone around Superior.
Next: Committee highlights groundbreaking efforts Flagstaff has made to cope with wildfires — and the problems it still faces.