Alarmed at the state of fire fuels in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey and State Fire Marshall Jeff Whitney held a press conference on Feb. 22 to discuss preparations for what’s shaping up as a “critical” fire season.

An intense monsoon abruptly ended with four months of bone-dry weather which has dried out the forest to historic levels, despite two recent winter storms.

“Chaparral is stressed, ponderosa pine and pinyon juniper land, they’re all stressed at this point because of the drought,” said Whitney.

Last year brought a worrisome fire season, with a wet winter and a dry, early spring. Whitney noted that the number of acres burned doubled from 2016 to 2017.

Then the wet monsoon spurred the growth of grass and brush.

“Because of the monsoons, everything that burned regrew,” he said.

In Rim Country, the evergreen trees have dropped their needles in droves.

The grass chokes hillsides in brown waves.

It’s a tinderbox ready to go — and the state knows this.

In response, Gov. Ducey has asked the Legislature to set aside $2 million for wildfire prevention in this year’s budget.

The state owns more than 9 million acres of land, which means the money for fire prevention amounts to about 40 cents per acre. Some of the most destructive fires in state history have started or burned on state-owned land, including the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters. The thick brush and trees all around Yarnell hadn’t burned or been thinned in decades and the state didn’t significantly boost the budget for thinning and controlled burns after that fire in 2013.

The Tonto National Forest alone has spent about $50 million thinning more than 50,000 acres around most Rim Country communities in the past decade — about $5 million annually. The Forest Service last year spent more than $2 billion fighting wildfires.

Whitney said the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management constantly updates its list of communities most at risk for fire.

“We are currently going through the Arizona management program,” said Whitney, “We’ve doubled the numbers of communities at risk. We hope to spread those dollars evenly over the five fire districts.”

Those dollars would go toward managing the fire fuels in order to prepare for the upcoming season.

But the two also asked local residents to take on the responsibility of clearing their property of brush.

“We are asking everyone to do their part to do what they can on their properties and ranches, to work with us this fire season,” said Whitney.

When asked if the state would help communities that balk at implementing wildland-urban interface codes by passing a statewide requirement, both Ducey and Whitney punted.

“We absolutely support that local communities would have a voice in the local code,” said Whitney. “We encourage all communities to practice Firewise procedures due to a lot of underbrush and trees next to their houses.”

Local Firewise communities like Pine have struggled to maintain their programs in recent years as state and federal grants to help collect and dispose of brush cut from around homes have dried up. Gila County has also struggled to find funding to keep the brush pits open for disposal of brush cleared from communities, following the loss of state and federal grants.

Ducey said the Legislature had no plans to address Firewise or WUI codes. “This is not on the legislative agenda (this year),” he said. “Our concern is the fire season in front of us.”

The state has stepped up its efforts to find grants and funding to thin brush and create fuel breaks, said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

The state’s work in the Prescott area helped during recent fires. “Shortly after Yarnell, the state continued its partnership with the Bureau of Land Management to install a fuel break in that area,” said Davila. “That break helped slow the Tenderfoot Fire.”

She said for the state as a whole, fire mitigation efforts continue. “We are constantly working on projects during the offseason — some range from a few acres to thousands of acres,” said Davila. “We have completed project work in areas such as north Scottsdale, we are working with ADOT next week to remove hazardous fuels along I-10 and the 85. We also do prescribed burns throughout northern Arizona.”

Besides fuel mitigation, the State Forestry Department also does public education said Davila.

“We work very hard to educate the public about campfire safety, not dragging chains on trailer hitches, parking in high grasses, tossing cigarettes out the window, etc.,” she said. “We will be using our billboard messaging again this year, which we partner with the USFS on, along with our radio-based public service announcements. We also have many outdoor events that we participate in throughout the year to spread our messages.”

The State Forestry Department also works closely with federal partners, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

“In Flagstaff, we are partnering with the USFS Coconino, under the Good Neighbor Authority to accelerate fuels treatment projects on Forest Service lands,” she said. “The GNA allows federal partners to directly work with the states to do fuels treatments. We are always working with our federal partners.”

Contact the reporter at

contact the reporter at: mnelson@payson.com

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