Staring down the barrel of a dangerous fire season, the Arizona Legislature approved a $24 million boost in state funding to protect forested communities through thinning projects.

The new initiative will fund a tenfold increase in state brush-clearing grants and put perhaps 700 prison inmates to work clearing brush.

“Guarding against wildfires is an important issue that requires a new strategy for the state,” said Gov. Doug Ducey. “That new strategy of taking additional steps to reduce wildfire risk to Arizona communities is reflected in the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative.”

The press release announcing the new program noted that the fire season has already effectively started in Arizona, with a wind-driven, 300-acre blaze in the Tonto Basin forcing the evacuation of some 140 people before crews brought it under control last week.

The initiative comes in the wake of an alarming series of major fires last year. Some 978,519 acres burned, making 2020 the second worst year in state history in terms of the acres burned. The Bush Fire burned 193,000 acres and forced evacuations in Tonto Basin. The Bighorn Fire near Tucson burned 120,000 acres.

The state in the past has largely left thinning the state’s millions of acres of dangerously overgrown forests to the federal government. The federal Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has for the past 10 years thinned about 15,000 acres annually, compared to the original goal of 50,000 annually.

Still, the creation of trained, brush-clearing crews using prison inmates and the big increase in state grants for community protection represents a new level of state interest in preventing a rising number of megafires from consuming whole communities, like the fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, Calif.

The new plan includes $21.5 million in the FY 22 budget to increase state capacity to reduce wildfire fuels — mostly by training and deploying prison labor. The prisoners gain potentially valuable job skills and references, while the communities get desperately needed protection at a lower cost.

The initiative also includes $2.2 million to help build partnerships.

The plan would increase by 500% the land treated through state programs. The existing program relies on 240 inmates. About 30 of those inmates in the existing program ended up with a job with the state after their release.

The state and federal governments have long relied on prison inmates for things like fighting wildfires. The Dude Fire on the Mogollon Rim in June 1990 killed six firefighters, five of them prison inmates. A towering plume of superheated air cooled as it rose in the atmosphere. The top of the pillar eventually collapsed, sending 100-foot-long jets of flame outward in all directions. The sheets of flame caught the prison crew and their supervisor in a narrow canyon.

The state has mostly not managed its own lands to reduce wildfire risk. The Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 Prescott Hotshot firefighters trapped in thick chaparral, burned largely on state-owned land that hadn’t burned or been thinned in more than 50 years.

The proposed thinning work will pose far less danger to the inmates than fighting an active wildfire, but could save forested communities like Payson and Show Low from the next megafire.

The Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative aims to increase the number of acres treated from 4,000 annually to 20,000 annually.

However, Arizona has about 6 million acres of overgrown ponderosa pine forests, now critically vulnerable to crown fires thanks to a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression.

Still, the initiative offers another source of help for endangered, forested communities — especially given the struggles to ramp up 4FRI to its originally planned pace. 4FRI has been hobbled by a lack of a market for the saplings and forest floor debris removed in thinning projects. The Arizona Corporation Commission has refused to require power companies to generate electricity from this biomass, which has made 4FRI restoration projects largely uneconomical.

Still, Gov. Ducey said the new initiative will benefit both inmates and communities.

“Wildfires pose a serious threat to Arizona communities every year,” said Ducey. “Our heroic and selfless firefighters put their lives on the line year after year to protect people, pets and property. Our proactive Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative is a major shift in our strategy to reduce wildfire risk and protect our communities.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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