Earlier this week a forest fire started burning above the city of Flagstaff. The Museum Fire has now grown to 1,927 acres and is threatening homes and structures near the city. Last month, the Woodbury Fire started near Superior and burned over 120,000 acres.
Sadly, devastating fires are nothing new in Arizona. Our mix of hot and dry desert weather with overgrown forests, makes it difficult to avoid tragedies like these. And while everyone seems to realize we have a problem, historically, nobody has been willing to address it.
Could the federal government do a better job in managing our forests? Obviously.
Could the Arizona Legislature do more to address fire prevention and forest management? Yes.
For decades everyone has looked around for solutions and either passed the buck or stepped back thinking, “someone else will take care of this.”
For the last two years, however, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Boyd Dunn and former Commissioner Andy Tobin have spearheaded an effort to do something about the problem. They have pushed for efforts to utilize our overgrown and excess biomass for power generation.
When I came to the Arizona Corporation Commission two months ago, I heard loud and clear from representatives in rural Arizona that the time for waiting on others is over. If there is a solution to this problem we need to act, and act now.
That is why I am so disheartened that our Commission refused to voice support for an innovative effort to address Arizona’s forest fire issue when we had the chance.
Earlier this month, Arizona Public Service Co. (APS) came before the Commission with a plan to convert one unit of their coal-fired power plant near Holbrook to a biomass unit. When the coal plant closes in 2025, this unit would remain in service helping to not only clear our overgrown forests, but to fuel the local economy. This proposal would’ve paired nicely with a recent request for proposals from the U.S. Forest Service on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative and helped us finally make some headway in thinning the state’s forests. Sadly, the vote to require APS to move forward on its plan was voted down 3-2. While I voted with Commissioner Dunn to require action, we were unable to get support from another commissioner.
By using forest waste for power, we could clear enough acres to limit the threat from major fires over the next 20 years. At the same time, utilizing this biomass would also have the additional environmental benefits of protecting Arizona’s vulnerable watersheds and limiting carbon dioxide emissions from future fires.
The proposal is controversial because biomass power is not cheap. Customers from all regulated utilities would see about a $1 increase in their power bill each month. These upfront costs, however, will produce massive returns on investment in the future.
If we can avoid even a single catastrophic forest fire like the Rodeo-Chediski or Wallow Fire, the effort we make today will easily pay for itself. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002, for instance, is estimated to have cost over $430 million.
Instead, this Commission voted to join the long list of those who choose to pass the buck instead of showing real leadership in taking action. While I continue to hold out hope that a biomass solution may still be possible — that we can still find a way to protect our rural communities from future devastation — that possibility seems to be slowly burning up.