Wildland firefighter deaths

Rep. Tom O’Halleran asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to tour fire operations in Arizona, hoping to help shift the conversation from firefighting to fire prevention.

“Climate change, coupled with a historic, decades-long drought, has led to longer and more deadly wildfire seasons, destroying natural environments and damaging important water sources,” wrote O’Halleran in his invitation to Vilsack. “Due to these wildfires, our state has experienced intense flooding ... Because of the constant threat that unabated wildfires pose to Arizona, I would like to formally invite you to visit Arizona’s First Congressional District.”

The invitation comes as the monsoon rain has quenched Arizona’s fire season, but as the rest of the West bursts into flames.

Fighting wildfires has nearly overwhelmed the U.S. Forest Service budget, creating an industrial scale network of fire contractors who consume billions in federal dollars every year fighting a steadily increasing plague of megafires.

The Biden administration has proposed a $1.7 billion increase in the Forest Service’s lands management budget, a 35% increase from the current fiscal year.

At a recent Senate budget hearing, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said “we saw the most acres burned on the Forest Service lands (in 2020) since the Big Burn of 1910. In many places, forests will not come back on their own, which impacts the potential for carbon storage and limits the land’s capacity to mitigate further climate change.”

Weather conditions and sparks from coal-fired trains passing through thick forests in 1910 burned 3 million acres and killed 87 people in northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington and southeastern British Columbia. The fire prompted Congress to double the budget of the fledgling U.S. Forest Service, in hopes firefighters could prevent future disasters. This ushered in a century of aggressive fire prevention, which dramatically reduced the average number of acres burned in the U.S. However, the effort to suppress almost all fires as soon as they started eventually resulted in a dramatic increase in tree densities in the West. Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests increased in density from about 50 trees per acre to more like 1,000 trees per acre across millions of acres.

The Forest Service has vowed to shift to fire prevention to thin fire-prone forests, but efforts have lagged far behind intent.

Christiansen said the Forest Service needs to treat an additional 20 million acres across the West to reduce fire danger, especially to forested communities like Payson and Show Low.

Christiansen said the Forest Service is on track to treat 3.5 million acres with thinning and prescribed burns.

However, thinning efforts have fallen far short of projections in Arizona — thanks to the lagging Four Forest Restoration Initiative.

The Forest Service has delayed for more than a year awarding the latest round of 4FRI contracts for a million acres of thinning projects to protect Rim Country and the White Mountains as it negotiates with potential bidders.

The key stumbling block remains the lack of a market for the biomass produced by small trees and debris, which makes up about half of the material thinning projects attempt to remove on millions of acres of ponderosa pine forest.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has repeatedly refused to require utilities to generate electricity from burning biomass, which would make large-scale thinning projects financially viable.

Fighting wildfires now costs the Forest Service $2 billion to $3 billion annually, nearly half of the agency’s total budget. The Forest Service now relies on an army of contractors and federally funded support from local fire departments to field as many as 33,000 firefighting personnel in a bad wildfire year.

The firefighting industry has taken to lobbying the Forest Service to keep the money flowing to the network of contractors, with everything from kitchens for firefighter camps to air tankers.

Nonetheless, the average number of acres burned in the U.S. has risen from about 3 million in the 1990s to about 10 million in the past three years. The worst wildfire years since 1960 have all occurred since 2006 — with 2015 and 2020 tied for the top spot. The number of structures burned has risen from 12,000 in 2017 to 18,000 in 2020. So far, 2021 is on track to top last year’s, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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