In harm´s way

In harm´s way

12 December 2013

published by

Part 1: Homes, firefighters in peril

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were in a perilous position even before the winds shifted that late-June afternoon.

On one side, the 19 wildland firefighters confronted a lightning-caused blaze in dry, overgrown chaparral that was 10 feet tall in places and so thick it was impassable.

On the other side was a man-made threat. Set among the scrub oak and manzanita were the central Arizona communities of Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley, primed to burn after years of building into highly flammable brush without adequately addressing the risks.

Firefighters surveying the towns the night before the blaze erupted declared them “indefensible,” according to an Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health report on the fire released Wednesday. Yet they defended them.

Apparent in the aftermath of the deadly blaze is that Yarnell and other communities near overgrown wilderness areas have altered the wildfire equation, magnifying the dangers and multiplying the costs.

An Arizona Republic analysis found that despite warnings from fire and forestry experts, and nature itself, the state’s wildlands are dangerously overgrown. Arizonans, meanwhile, have since 1990 built more than 230,000 homes and other structures in wildfire-prone areas, creating risks for themselves and the firefighters called upon to protect them.

State and local officials have done little to address the threats even as wildfires have claimed more than 4 million acres in Arizona in just over a decade and the cost of fighting and cleaning up after some blazes has ballooned beyond $100 million each.

Preventive efforts have failed to match the threat. Only a handful of communities require residents to create “defensible space” around their homes, and politicians are reluctant to impose rules that could be perceived as trampling property rights. At the same time, communities that allow unfettered wildland development do not bear the full cost of fighting fires or cleaning up the aftermath.

The result is that federal and state taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars fighting and recovering from Arizona wildfires, while setting aside a fraction of that amount to thin forests and protect communities from wildfire.

When communities grow into areas vulnerable to wildfire, firefighting becomes complex and chaotic. It requires evacuations and brings to bear political pressures for firefighters to protect property.

Remove communities from the wildfire equation, and the decision whether to fight a blaze becomes a simple question of land and forest management.

A shift in the wind is all it took to tilt the equation against the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30.

Investigators piecing together the crew’s movements that day found the hotshots were assigned to establish an anchor point and cut a fire break through the tinder-dry chaparral “to keep the fire out of Yarnell and Peeples Valley.”

Wildland firefighters are taught to value their own lives above property. But firefighting culture also prizes sparing homes, and the decision whether property can be safely defended is a judgment call often made on the run.

Among the hotshots’ final communications — minutes before they were overtaken by 2,000-plus degree flames driven by winds from a gathering storm — was a text message to family: “This fire is running at Yarnell!!!”

The blaze killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots and destroyed 127 homes in Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley. The residents were evacuated.

The hotshots’ lookout, Brendan McDonough, narrowly escaped the blaze, and 61 other firefighters in the area were exposed to unnecessary risks of “smoke inhalation, burns and death,” according to the state report released last week. The Industrial Commission of Arizona, in a unanimous vote, found state forestry officials “prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety.”

The commission levied $559,000 in fines and penalties, including $25,000 to be paid to each firefighter’s family or estate.

Some wildfire experts have drawn the uncomfortable conclusion that if Yarnell weren’t there, or had been better prepared to withstand a fire, the hotshots wouldn’t have been in the path of the flames. This, they say, isn’t second-guessing, but a poignant reminder of the danger inherent in building in fire-prone landscapes.

Megafires have over the past decade blackened unprecedented swaths of western wildlands and torched homes in historic numbers.

With all signs indicating the trend will continue, wildfire experts say policymakers must reevaluate how to best protect communities as development continues in Arizona’s forests and chaparral — and into harm’s way.

Accelerated building

Arizona has built into its forests and chaparral at an accelerating pace in recent decades.

The Republic’s analysis found the pace of development in wildfire-prone areas increased by 91 percent between the 1980s and the 2000s.

The Republic examined assessor records for Arizona counties outside its major desert population centers of Maricopa and Pima. The records, when plotted on a map, revealed when and where development occurred within the area experts call the “wildland-urban interface.” The analysis excluded La Paz and Santa Cruz counties, where complete data was unavailable or wildfire threat is minimal.

The wildland-urban interface, often called the WUI (woo-ee), encompasses areas where development abuts or mixes with forest, chaparral or grasslands.

For its analysis, The Republic used the University of Wisconsin SILVIS Lab’s widely accepted map of the WUI. It encompasses areas where development draws within 1 and 1/2 miles of wildland vegetation. The 1 and 1/2-mile boundary reflects the distance burning material can be carried by winds during a wildfire.

State occupational safety investigators, noting Yarnell was surrounded with overgrown chaparral, called it “a classic example of the wildland urban interface (WUI) situation.”

But it’s not unique among wildland communities. Nearly 80 percent of all recorded development in the counties analyzed by The Republic occurred in these areas. The analysis shows since 1990 at least 234,393 properties were built in or adjacent to fire-prone wildlands.

Yavapai County, where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died, has the largest share of development in wildfire-prone areas in the state. Ninety-six percent of developed parcels in the county are vulnerable to wildfire.

Southeastern Arizona’s Graham County also has a large share of development, 93 percent, in areas where wildfire is a threat. Coconino County, home to Flagstaff, Williams and parts of Sedona, has 85 percent of its development in such areas. And Gila County, where forest towns stud the Mogollon Rim, places 74 percent of its development in fire-prone areas.

The nation overall has experienced a wildland building boom, with 120 million people now living in communities vulnerable to wildfire, nearly a five-fold increase since the 1960s, according to the Montana-based Headwaters Economics. That study used a narrower definition of forested wildland development than The Republic.

In Arizona, development in areas vulnerable to wildfire slowed dramatically during the recession as it did elsewhere, according to The Republic analysis. But as building returns, hundreds of thousands of fire-prone acres are available for development across the state.

Yavapai County, for example, has 118,674 vacant acres in fire-prone areas where homes, schools and businesses could be built, representing nearly a third of all county land in these areas.

Some of the land is chaparral, which can’t be thinned like evergreen forests to diminish the fire threat.

Chaparral springs back quickly and burns out of control, usually every 15 to 30 years, said Wally Covington, director of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. Buffers can be cut into brush around homes, but the landscape of oily shrubs is inherently combustible.

“If you’re building in chaparral, it’s going to burn,” Covington said. “It’s going to burn fairly frequently and hot.

“The problem in chaparral is building in chaparral.”

Some of the land is ponderosa forest, where researchers say it’s typical for 1,100 trees to choke an acre that would have supported only 20 or 30 trees in the era before settlement.

If the forest were in its natural state, fire could spread across the ground every few years without touching a home. But Covington estimates 80 percent of northern Arizona’s forests are overgrown, the peril left by a nearly 100-year effort to banish fire and its natural thinning effect. Fuel for the next fire is all around.

Amy Johnson, a Pinetop real-estate agent and longtime resident of the White Mountains community, said home sales are coming back after dipping in 2011, perhaps due to that year’s 538,000-acre Wallow Fire, which burned 32 houses and a cabin.

“Everybody would love to back up to the national forest,” Johnson said of the surrounding Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. “We want people to come to the White Mountains. Yes, we’re surrounded by forest and we have fires, but we survive them.”

Thinning plan falters

In the summer of 2002 came an early sign that Arizona would face increasing costs and dangers protecting communities in wildfire-prone areas. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire blackened 468,000 acres, forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people and torched 481 structures.

But policy makers have done little since then to make forests healthier and ensure the safety of wildland-community residents and the firefighters called on to protect them. A federal effort to thin a million acres in the national forests has sputtered through its early stages, with the first chosen contractor bowing out after the business plan to finance the work faltered.

In 2004, with the memory of Rodeo-Chediski still fresh, then-state Rep. Tom O’Halleran, R-Sedona, backed legislation to create a statewide wildland building code, with penalties for property owners who did not maintain a safety zone around their houses. Despite support from the Governor’s Forest Health Council, which was formed to study issues raised by the fire, the legislation flopped and has never resurfaced. Lawmakers said it smacked of government intrusion on individual property rights and personal responsibility, a tension that has defined that debate.

“It goes along with the remnants of our frontier culture. We have more of that than we might believe,” said Don Falk, a University of Arizona forest ecologist who chaired the Governor’s Forest Health Council. “It’s hard for people who want to place these constraints because there’s such a distrust of any centralized authority.”

Steve Gatewood, whose property south of Flagstaff is shaded by towering pines and crossed by a creek, has over the past 10 years removed 22 trees and installed a metal roof on his house to guard against fire. He preaches the importance of defensible space through his work with the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership but understands why some resist, even in a city surrounded by forest.

“We have people who like the thick, dark, green forest: the Black Forest in Germany,” he said. It’s hard to part with that and even harder to sway people who chafe at any kind of rules or regulations touching their property, he said.

Cities and towns can adopt their own wildland building codes. But only 10 jurisdictions statewide, including small fire districts, have passed a version of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code, which calls for tree- and brush-clearing requirements along with safe roofing and siding, residential sprinklers and minimal overhangs.

Among them are Prescott and Flagstaff, but not the broader fire-prone counties, Yavapai and Coconino, they anchor.

Pima County has a wildland building code that applies only to Mt. Lemmon, where the 2003 Aspen Fire ripped through forest and structures. But Bill Williams Mountain, above Williams, Dean Peak in Mohave County, and Mount Graham, above Safford, don’t.

In some cases, local laws have been counterproductive. When University of Arizona extension forester Steve Campbell moved to Pinetop in the early 1990s, the town had an ordinance prohibiting property owners from cutting more than three trees and required a permit for all cutting. Only after Rodeo-Chediski did Pinetop-Lakeside reverse course by adopting an ordinance that encourages tree cutting.

At a workshop this summer on the dangers of building in fire-prone areas local officials said they would suffer politically if they tried to impose restrictions on new homes.

“Thousands of dollars, it increases the cost,” Navajo County Supervisor Sylvia Allen said, “especially the sprinklers.”

“It’s getting to the point where people feel so burdened.”

In his nine years as a Navajo County supervisor, Dave Tenney said the idea of a wildland building code to protect forest towns like Show Low and Pinetop has never come up. Nor should it, he said.

“I personally don’t feel the problem is where people are building,” he said. “People have had homes in the middle of the forest for decades.”

The problem, he said, is the forests are choked with trees that carry fire easily. Thin the forest and the threat goes away, he said.

Charlie Brown, a Lindon resident who lost a home to Rodeo-Chediski, acknowledges living in the forest has risks, but so does living where wildfire isn’t a threat, he said.

“Right after we lost our house, The Arizona Republic quoted an ASU professor who said if you build in the WUI, expect to burn,” said Brown, who has since rebuilt using fire-resistant materials. “My response to him was ‘You live in the big city, you’re going to get robbed and raped.’”

Given the attitudes and political realities, efforts to reduce fire risks in wildland communities have largely been voluntary.

One afternoon in October in the gated community of White Mountain Summer Homes in Pinetop, Mike Furrier nervously chuckled as he watched a forestry expert mark trees on his property for clearing.

The homeowners association encourages tree thinning on all its 470 lots. But the thinning is optional and costs an average of $1,500 for the work.

“Gotta go to the store and buy some alcohol for my wife, I see,” he joked as he saw how many trees would be removed.

The Furriers, who live in Tucson, have been coming to their cabin for 30 years. Part of the attraction was the privacy offered by a thicket of trees on their land. But after the neighborhood was evacuated as Rodeo-Chediski threatened, their perspective changed.

“It’s important to take care of the forest,” Joelee Furrier said. “I know it needs (to be) done.”

When the association sought state grant money for thinning work a couple of years ago, 110 owners signed up, said association president Glen Walker. Sixty of them later backed out when they realized how many trees would be cut down. The association is contemplating mandatory thinning.

The Yarnell Hill Fire highlighted how effective such work can be. Sixty-three homes in the wildfire’s path had adequate defensible space and almost all weathered the blaze, according to an analysis by the Pacific Biodiversity Institute.

The problem is that voluntary efforts haven’t come close to addressing the problem. CoreLogic, a real-estate analytics company, estimated in an October report that 38,653 Arizona properties worth a combined $4.7 billion are at “high” or “very high” risk of wildfire damage. The report assessed the density of vegetation, terrain, construction materials and other factors.

The report cautioned the risk won’t improve given the recent trend of megafires. “The number of homes exposed to the risk and the amount of damage realized each year will continue to increase,” the report states.

Some states have started aggressively addressing the risks. Oregon’s state forester is now authorized to contact landowners every five years for proof they are complying with hazard-reduction standards — and to charge up to $100,000 for fighting fires that break out there if they fail to comply within two years. Colorado’s governor is backing a proposal to require, among other things, defensible space and disclosure of wildfire hazards when property is sold.

Insurance companies have responded to the risk.

Johnson, the Pinetop real-estate agent, was stunned when she ran into a new impediment to sales: costly or impossible-to-get insurance due to wildfire risk. A would-be buyer recently walked away from a sale in Pinetop-Lakeside because of wildfire-driven insurance costs, she said.

State Farm agents in 13 western states, including Arizona, began a decade ago to report unsafe forest conditions in their communities. Spokeswoman Angela Thorpe said the company won’t renew policies unless homeowners clear wildfire hazards from their property. Nearly all comply, she said.

UA fire ecologist Falk sees a parallel between wildfire-prone areas and flood plains and barrier islands — places where development restrictions and an emphasis on individual responsibility are well established. It’s harder to map a “fireshed” than a watershed. But there are ways of predicting the probability of fire, and rising costs may force action as floods and hurricanes have in the past.

“It’s unavoidable,” Falk said. “You can’t just walk away from this situation anymore.”

The proponents of measures to protect communities from wildfires say it’s a “pay now or pay later” proposition, and later means taxpayers and insurers take the hit.

“We have got to turn that thinking around,” said Dave Nichols, a former Mesa firefighter who now manages regional government relations for the code council. “Too often we see these codes put in place after the disaster.”

Flagstaff adopted its wildland building code in 2008 amid a series of close calls.

In 2010, a fire that evacuated part of the city conveyed the message that thinning works. The Little America Hotel had thinned the forest around its property, and the fire immediately dropped from the tops of the trees to the ground when it reached that spot.

Then came the Schultz Fire later that year, which blistered 15,000 acres of mountainside above the exurban neighborhood of Doney Park. An intense fire like that consumes vegetation that otherwise would hold water, and it bakes soil to the point it repels rain. When monsoon rains arrived shortly after the fire, a debris flow surged through homes, killing a 12-year-old girl.

Last year roughly three-quarters of voters approved $10 million in bonds to thin the forest on federal lands above town.

A Northern Arizona University report put in stark terms the costs of prevention versus reaction. At a cost of $1,000 to thin each burned acre before the Schultz Fire, the researchers calculated, it would have taken $15 million to stop a deadly catastrophe that ultimately cost $146 million.

Defending homes costly
Most wildfires are quickly extinguished. But the blazes that burn out of control and are most expensive to fight predominantly occur adjacent to or in wildland communities, according to a 2008 report by the International Code Council.

Firefighters in developed areas contend with power lines, residential streets and usually a stream of residents evacuating their homes, said Mark Brehl, Firewise manager for the city of Flagstaff. It’s harder to negotiate than cutting a fire break in wilderness, he said.

State occupational safety investigators in their examination of the Yarnell Hill Fire chronicled dangers that can arise when firefighters are dispatched to defend property.

A crew of 31 was assigned to protect the Double Bar A Ranch, northwest of Yarnell, even though structures there were “non-defensible,” the report states. The firefighters remained at the ranch even when attempts to beat back the blaze from the air failed and a tennis court “designated as a safety zone was known to be too small for the approaching 40 foot long flames.” Investigators concluded fire managers placed protection of the ranch above firefighters’ safety.

Defending private property from wildfires consumes between 50 and 95 percent of wildland-firefighting budgets nationwide, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture audit report.

“It’s probably two or three times the cost of fighting a wildland fire,” said Dan Bailey, director of the code council’s Wildland Fire Program.

The costs have burdened agency budgets to the point there’s little money left for work to reduce the impact of the next big blaze.

During the 1980s the federal firefighting budget was in the $200 million to $300 million range, only topping a half-billion dollars during the massive fires in Yellowstone National Park. In 2000, the bill exceeded $1 billion for the first time. Last year, federal land managers spent $1.9 billion fighting fires, $1.4 billion of which came from the Forest Service, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In what has become an almost annual exercise, the Forest Service this year again dipped into other funds, including those to thin forests and minimize fire risks, to come up with an extra $600 million to fight wildfires.

Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, said the agency has become a glorified fire-fighting service.

Bailey spent 30 years with the Forest Service before joining the code council.

“As you put all your forces (into) trying to protect people, lives and homes, you’re using all your resources,” leaving nothing for thinning overgrown forests, he said.

Arizona budgeted $4 million for fire fighting this year, up from $3 million a year earlier. The state sets aside no money for wildfire prevention, although it receives federal dollars it distributes as grants.

Firefighting budgets, however, don’t give a full picture of the costs.

The Schultz Fire north of Flagstaff, for example, cost the U.S. Forest Service $9.4 million to battle. But a study by NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute put the total costs related to the 2010 blaze as much as 15 times higher.

When the burned area flooded, the Forest Service spent $5 million attempting to divert and then clean up the muck. The flood also damaged culverts, bridges and a U.S. highway, so the Federal Highway Administration was in for millions. So too were the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In all, direct government expenses for what was a relatively small wildfire, totaled $59 million. That doesn’t include the loss of life, hit to property values, habitat destruction and cleanup costs, among others. NAU estimates the total price tag is between $133 million and $147 million.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, at 8,400 acres, was also a relatively small wildfire. The firefighting costs — $5.4 million with some bills outstanding — were covered by federal and state dollars. But the total costs won’t be known for years.

Public coffers also are covering survivor benefits for the 19 hotshots, including $7 million in one-time payments and $802,600 a year in ongoing benefits, according to the Arizona Legislature’s budget office.

The city of Prescott has said it can’t afford the estimated $24 million in lump-sum benefit payments to survivors of the 13 Granite Mountain hotshots who were part-time employees. Nor can the city afford the estimated $52 million cost of annual benefits over the survivors’ lifespan.

Hit to budget
Some experts believe that as long as federal and state governments pay the firefighting bills — a burden borne by all taxpayers, whether they live at the forest’s edge or in a Manhattan highrise — local governments won’t take into account the risks of building in wildlands. After all, it’s local officials who approve development plans and building codes.

“The only way local government is going to have the authority and the political cover they need to make these decisions is to hit their budget,” said Rasker, of Headwaters Economics.

If local officials had to balance wildland-fire fighting with funding for parks, street repairs and other civic duties, they might reconsider what kind of development they allow in fire-prone areas, Rasker said.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s stop subsidizing this and let communities deal with it,’” said Bailey.

The loss of 19 lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire has put an exclamation mark on who covers the costs and who faces the dangers. More and more, fire officials and those who study wildland fire say saving properties isn’t worth it if it leads firefighters into unprotected territory.

“The priority for wildland fire fighting is public safety — the protection of human life, the structures and the natural resources,” Bailey said. But the pace of fires today leaves few options for protecting those resources from a raging fire.

Brehl said Flagstaff won’t put firefighters at risk to save homes, especially if homeowners haven’t made an effort to protect their house from wildfire.

“We won’t go in,” he said. “If we’re putting firefighters in extreme risk, just to save someone’s summer cabin, we’re not doing that.”

But in practice, the decision to not protect properties can be controversial.

Joe Kenmore’s wildfire crew played it safe when called to fight the Little Bear Fire in Ruidoso, N.M., last year.

Officials scrambled to evacuate homes along switchback forest roads, the Lincoln County emergency director said, but decided to retreat when foot-long embers began sailing downhill past them. A ski area, though, was accessible and safely defensible.

“It comes back to something like Yarnell,” Kenmore said. “It was just dangerous to be in some of these canyons. There’s no tree or any building worth anybody’s life.”

Trail ride outfitter Robert Runnels spits when he talks about it.

“They could’ve completely doused this fire,” Runnels said, motioning up the trail from his stables to the spot where lightning struck in a designated wilderness area, igniting the Little Bear Fire that blackened 43,000 acres. “Instead, they monitored it. … They continued to monitor it until it burned 250 houses.”

The fire burned slowly for five days in the backcountry woods. Then strong winds drove it at night across miles of forested homes below the wilderness. It skipped over Runnels’ horses but torched the lands that attract his customers.

No one was hurt, but residents lost 254 buildings, mostly homes. The fire, which cost $20 million to fight, also left a glaring scar in the breezy pine groves that keep the resort town full of Texans in summer. A consultant for New Mexico estimates total costs from Little Bear will approach $250 million.

A wilderness outfitter since 1981, and a Forest Service employee before that, Runnels said crews used to charge at fires and dig containment lines up against them, but now they back off and try to clear fuels from a distance.

Kenmore believes the fire was, in fact, too dangerous to confront directly in the early going, though firefighters were trying to contain it. The terrain was steep and the canopy unnaturally dense after a century of fire suppression, he said, making possible at any moment the kind of devastation the winds ultimately unleashed.

“We were just trying to stay ahead of it so nobody got hurt,” he said.

They succeeded in that goal, though property owners later complained.

“People who lost homes said, ‘Where were you guys?’” Kenmore said. “Well, we were trying to get there. You just couldn’t get in there that night.”

The lesson, he believes, is homeowners have to take more responsibility for their safety if they want to live in the woods. They need to cut their trees and create a safe zone around their property, and to build with fire-safe materials and designs.

“You need defensible space,” he said.

Like most Arizona wildland communities, Ruidoso has no rule requiring safe zones or fire-safe building materials. There’s no code forcing builders to screen the gaps under decks or ban roof overhangs, which are especially prone to ignition.

Some of the homes that burned actually ignited long after the fire had swept past them. Embers pooled and smoldered undetected under soffits, Kenmore said.


Whatever decisions or conditions ultimately killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the foundation for danger was laid years ago. As Arizona towns and communities rose in and next to wildlands, so did the risks.

Falk, the University of Arizona fire ecologist, said property owners can no longer build in fire-prone areas and say it’s no one else’s business. When the fire comes, there’s no way of knowing whose life will be on the line, even if firefighters aren’t supposed to risk themselves for vacant property.

“These houses have people in them. That’s what they’re for,” Falk said. “By allowing these houses to be built, you’re setting up the inevitability that some day somebody’s going to be trapped by fire there. That’s not a choice that is fair for firefighters to be asked to make.

“That’s why the house shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Part 2: Protection efforts lag

Sally Dickman and Terry Palmberg were in the yard of their Yarnell guest house on a fall afternoon, stuffing vines, leaves and any woody scrap they could find into trash bags.

“Anything can burn — anything that’s green,” Palmberg said as the two tidied the already-neat yard.

Their wisdom is hard-won: The couple lost their home of 22 years to the Yarnell Hill Fire, which ignited in nearby chaparral and torched much of the small central Arizona community in late June.

Even though the house was built of rock, a wooden porch drew flames inside. Inexplicably, the wildfire spared their wood-sided guest house across the street. All told, 127 homes burned.

As the couple rebuild, they’re committed to guarding their property from wildfire, creating a textbook example of “defensible space” that experts say is necessary to protect Arizona’s wildland communities.

Over the last two decades, the state has seen a development boom in areas where wildfire is a threat, such as in Yarnell. Since 1990, at least 234,393 properties were built in fire-prone locations across Arizona.

But an Arizona Republic analysis shows work to clear brush around such communities and to thin overgrown forests hasn’t kept pace. The effort has been stymied by a lack of funding and coordination, and hindered by a deference to property rights.

As a result, the work that has been done is dwarfed by the need.

The federal government funds work on its expansive land holdings in the state. But the state Legislature does not allocate money for wildfire prevention, relying instead on federal grants.

Further, there’s no overarching strategy. An attempt last decade to prioritize and track thinning efforts using the Arizona Fire Map foundered due to a lack of money after the state budget crunch hit in late 2008.

The Republic examined records of forest-restoration and wildfire-prevention work funded or carried out by federal land-management agencies and the state Forestry Division since 2002. That year, the Rodeo-Chediski megafire seared 469,000 acres, delivering a wake-up call on the danger of overgrown wildlands and the need to address the threat from the vegetation that wildfire experts call “fuels.”

The analysis shows during the last decade, crews have thinned trees and cut back chaparral on about 1.9 million acres.

Although that acreage, scattered across the state’s high country, is tantamount to one and a half Grand Canyon National Parks, it barely leaves a dent on the Arizona landscape. Arizona has 67 million “burnable” acres, according to the Western Wildfire Risk Assessment, a collaboration between federal and Western state foresters.

“On the scale we have, it’s a dot,” said Chuck Maxwell, fire-weather program manager with the Southwest Coordinating Center, which coordinates wildfire information.

The analysis also shows agencies have focused fire-prevention funds on communities at the edges of wildlands, where development is vulnerable to fires. While that work is necessary, experts say it has left the broader forests, where the state’s recent megafires have ignited, packed with fuel for the next big blaze.

That needs to change if Arizona is to prevent the next Rodeo-Chediski, said Diane Vosick of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

“If you only treat around the urban areas, you’re not going to stop the megafires,” said Vosick, the institute’s director of policy and partnerships.

Profound results
In the last 10 years, Arizona has spent $24.9 million in grants to thin vegetation on 65,613 acres. The state draws on federal dollars designated for communities vulnerable to wildfire.

The federal government over the past decade has spent nearly $79 million to reduce wildfire risk on national lands outside the six national forests in Arizona. One-third of that work was on lands adjacent to development, such as the forest next to McNary in the White Mountains. That work included national parks and national monuments in the state.

The Forest Service thinned 899,417 acres inside the six national forests within Arizona borders during that period, records show, but could not provide documentation showing the costs or location of the work.

The work near the wildland-urban border, if strategically done, can have profound results.

In the eastern Arizona community of Alpine, a Forest Service thinning project is credited with slowing 2011’s Wallow Fire to a crawl as it approached town. A map of the fire shows Alpine as a doughnut hole amid 538,000 acres of blackened destruction.

The work that spared Alpine was part of a rush to reduce hazardous fuels following Rodeo-Chediski. State and federal records show a six-fold increase in federal dollars for such projects from 2002 to 2003; on the state level, funding nearly doubled in that same period.

Where officials elect to spend the money is decided as much by local buy-in and resources as the level of threat.

Glen Buettner, at state Forestry, said to stretch each dollar the state focuses on areas with long-standing needs and a commitment to maintain the work, which requires upkeep.

“We all know there isn’t enough money to do these projects and redo them,” said Buettner, who manages the agency’s grants program.

The Prescott Area Wildland Urban Interface Commission is a perennial applicant for such dollars. The non-profit group, which works to reduce the wildfire threat throughout Yavapai County, has secured $2.7 million in state grants over the last 11 years, matching it with local dollars. As a result, 21,130 acres have been thinned, state records show.

The required match can be anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent, which has put the cost of wildfire prevention out of reach for some.

Steve Campbell, a University of Arizona extension forester, advises Pinetop homeowners on protecting their properties from wildfire. On some luxury homesites, the bill to cut trees and clear brush is well over $1,000. Often, those properties are in sight of cabins and mobile homes whose owners can’t pay for it.

“That’s the unfortunate fact. Right across these trees you’ve got a fairly poor neighborhood,” Campbell said while talking to a reporter outside the local fire station. “They can’t afford to do this work.”

Prescott is the rare Arizona community that provided tree thinning without a funding match, using the off-season labor of its Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of whom died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

When the crew fought wildfires, they shifted from the city payroll to the federal or state agency that dispatched them. The city also received payments for the crew’s services.

That helped Prescott cover landowners’ share of thinning on 3,500 acres over the last 10 years, according to Darrell Willis, who leads the city Fire Department’s wildfire programs. In other cases, lower-income residents use their labor to match grants.

Prescott’s efforts have followed a plan, not wealth, Willis said. “It goes where it’s needed.”

Overlooking dangers
Often, communities don’t get the “defensible space” religion until after a disaster, opting to enjoy the thick greenery and overlook its dangers.

When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered to help Yarnell-area residents clear chaparral from their properties last year, only four stepped forward, according to Jack Rauh, who helped found the Peeples Valley Fire Department and worked for years as a fire assessor, trying to convince people to clean up their land.

Last year, the Yarnell fire chief passed up a $15,000 grant for brush clearing, citing a lack of volunteers to do the work.

By October, three months after the Yarnell Hill Fire tore through the community, attitudes had changed. Homeowners eagerly signed up for help when a corps of Mormon Church volunteers from Peoria came to help clear their properties.

“I’m going to make sure the dead stuff is trimmed up,” said Trish Edwards, pointing to the blackened limbs of scrub oak that dot her Glen Ilah property. Her blue house rimmed with lilac bushes was spared in the June fire, but barely: The blaze was marching up the hill behind her property but stopped when it hit boulders that line two edges of her land.

Edwards, with the help of two volunteers, fed a pile of crackling-dry tree limbs into a wood chipper.

Buettner, at state Forestry, said enthusiasm for wildfire-prevention work is typically a “short-term religion.”

“You definitely see the interest fade, and their interest turns to other things.”

Inconsistent record
Government also has an inconsistent record addressing the risk of wildfire.

Federal spending to fight wildfires outweighs the money allotted for prevention efforts, an equation that leaves former Peeples Valley fire official Jack Rauh exasperated.

Four months after the Yarnell Hill Fire, Rauh was instructing volunteers as they helped him cut back a tangle of scrub oak and manzanita on his property. There was no money immediately available in the fire’s aftermath to clear the dense chaparral that could fuel the next wildfire.

Rauh’s exasperation highlights the imbalance in wildland policy: The federal government spent three times more money fighting fires last year than preventing them.

The imbalance is reflected in the Forest Service’s workforce. National staffing for land management, such as thinning projects, dropped to 3,200 people in 2012, from 6,000 in 1998 — a 47 percent decline. During the same period, fire staffing jumped 110 percent, to 12,000 from 5,700.

Shifting federal priorities and tightening budgets in Washington, D.C., have affected what Arizona can do.

The federal dollars the state Forestry Division draws on for fuel-reduction grants have seesawed. After nearly doubling from 2002 to 2003, the dollars dropped by a third the following year.

The high-water mark over the last decade was in 2009, with $7.4 million in grants directed at 9,508 acres, state records show. The next year, the amount dropped nearly 91 percent, to $691,850. By 2012, the latest budget year for which figures are available, the state administered $393,607 in grants, treating 567 acres.

On the state level, the Legislature allots money for firefighting but nothing for prevention. This year, the Legislature boosted the amount for firefighting by a third, putting $4 million into efforts for the year that started July 1, compared to $3 million the previous year.

Appeal to industry
With taxpayer-funded wildfire-prevention work leaving millions of acres of overgrown Arizona forest untouched, the federal government has turned to industry. But the magnitude of the task has been daunting.

Arizona has yet to see the large-scale thinning that could prevent fire from overrunning most of its remaining forest.

An initial 10-year program in the White Mountains thinned 150,000 acres around forested communities. But a grander 1 million-acre endeavor called the Four Forest Restoration Initiative has been slow to develop as financing for a proposed lumber and furniture-parts mill in Winslow stalled.

State Forester Scott Hunt believes supplying wood culled from overgrown forests to mills and other businesses is the only way to pay for the massive effort that’s needed.

We’ve got to have industry at the table,” he said.

Until ambitious, landscape-scale projects such as the Four Forest Restoration Initiative can succeed, reducing hazardous fuels closest to properties is the safest bet for wildfire protection, experts say.

That’s easier said than done. It’s hard to convince people to cut the trees and shrubs that lured them to their properties in the first place, said Rauh, the former Peeples Valley fire assessor.

Excuses abounded, he said: “‘I don’t want my brush trimmed up, I like the natural look.’”

But he argues people have to be held responsible for their properties. If they aren’t, either wildfire will end the conversation or government of some form will have to step in, to do trimming or to put out a fire.

Whichever way, Rauh said, the negligent owner should get the bill.

In Alpine, Fire Chief Travis Noth took two firefighters to a house in the woods recently, marking trees for cutting to reduce fire risk. The owner would have to pay $100 per acre, or 10 percent of the cost of the work.

Near the home was a lot that was hit by lightning this summer, burning a single tree and some tall grass. Three years earlier, crews had removed 100 trees from the property.

“I’m telling you, that made all the difference,” Noth said.

Linda Sonive didn’t need convincing. She was ordered to evacuate during the massive Wallow Fire, and did so angrily until she got some distance and realized how scared she had been. She asked Noth’s crew to mark her trees for cutting.

“It’s important for my safety,” said the retired teacher. “It’s important for the health of the land.

“This is home.”

Part 3: Waters at risk

Wildfires are broiling Southwestern watersheds and ruining reservoirs.

The charred mountains repel water instead of filter it. Baked soils don’t germinate pine seeds, casting doubt on forest revival. Post-monsoon rivulets become torrents that wash mud and debris into rivers and dams. Far from the flames, desert dwellers suffer the loss.

It happened here last summer.

Little Bear Fire in the mountains around Ruidoso burned more than 200 homes before a second hazard befell the resort town. Summer rains pelted the charred hills above Bonito Lake, a reservoir from which the desert city of Alamogordo draws a fifth of its water. Ash, muck and chunks of burned wood flushed into the lake, where a bubbly sheen of toxic flotsam remains today, rippling against the alpine dam.

A U.S. Forest Service assessment found more than a third of the 35,000 federal acres within the 44,000-acre fire were torched with such intensity that 3 inches of ash lay atop water-repellent soils. The agency predicted that dirt and ash erosion from those areas would increase by more than 900 percent.

“The first hard rain after the fire it looked like chocolate milk was running in here,” Lincoln County emergency manager Joe Kenmore said.

The pollutants rendered the water undrinkable, and environmental consultants are testing sediments to see how much toxic heavy metal may have been carried down from abandoned mines. The trout have disappeared.

It can happen to Phoenix, too.

The danger lurks in pine forests that have grown overcrowded since the Forest Service and others started putting out the smaller fires that cleaned away grasses and seedlings while merely licking at the trunks of the more robust ponderosa pines. The dense forest that strategy left behind now fuels superheated fires that rage through the canopy, often killing everything for miles.

“We’re creating scablands,” Northern Arizona University restoration Forester Wally Covington warned this fall at a Salt River Project conference promoting forest “investment strategies.”

In a healthy forest, trees receive adequate water and sunlight and are able to resist drought, fire and insect infestations. Covington says time is short — a decade or two — to transform overgrown fire traps into resilient forests that can continue to safeguard the water supply.

The strategies include one that would have seemed revolutionary before Flagstaff voters pioneered it last year: local taxes to fund tree thinning on the federal forests above them to protect the city and its water supply.

The threat to the watershed that built Phoenix is tucked miles out of most Arizonans’ sight. And it’s largely out of mind when compared to the direct threat of flames to wildland communities that are building into the woods at an accelerated pace, according to an Arizona Republic analysis. That trend is up 86 percent between the 1980s and 2000s.

But the costs will hit home for most residents of the state if huge fires pollute its critical rivers. The Salt and Verde drain 13,000 square miles and supply about a million acre-feet a year, enough for about 2 million Arizona families if the water were used exclusively in homes.

It’s been a fairly simple equation for metro Phoenix residents since Roosevelt Dam’s completion a century ago: Sock away the rain and snowmelt from the forested Mogollon Rim and watch the desert bloom in millions of backyards. The ponderosa pines perched thousands of feet above the desert floor function as a sponge that filters and gently releases clean water, which SRP stores in reservoirs for Valley treatment plants.

“If we protect these forests, we’ll have a water supply forever,” SRP water resources manager Charlie Ester said.

But what if they burn to the ground instead?

Forest health is key
In October, a Texas-based crew helping Alamogordo assess how much debris poured into Bonito Lake drilled core samples near the dam. From a pontoon boat they pulled up an aluminum tube containing a 13-foot-deep sample of blackened gunk.

It will cost millions to dredge the lake.

The trees that burned were, like Arizona’s, ponderosa pines that had grown unnaturally thick after a century of religious fire suppression. Winds carried the lightning-caused fire through the pines, the heat killing much of the soil beneath as the flames made an 8-mile run.

The ash and mud unleashed by the first post-fire rains would have clogged the 70-mile pipeline that runs from the reservoir to the city if officials hadn’t shut it down and drilled new wells into an already stressed aquifer. Lincoln County officials predict it will be five to seven years before the reservoir is fully operational again.

The county put up concrete barriers to redirect the mud, but the barriers floated on the blob. During a flash flood this summer, four people had to be rescued after the station wagon they were traveling in was swept from a Forest Service road.

“You have to watch the clouds when you go up Bonito,” Lincoln County Commissioner Jackie Powell said.

After the fire, Ruidoso — with its 10,000 full-time residents and another 30,000 during the summer — also faced problems with its water supply. Floods trashed and poisoned a small Ruidoso reservoir as they had Bonito Lake.

The result was an extra burden on another reservoir above town, but it wasn’t enough.

“The demands on the system are just unbelievable,” said Laura Doth, a business owner and leader of the village’s resource-conservation council. She spoke over lunch at a Mexican restaurant that closed after the fire for lack of water.

“We were flushing toilets with our hot-tub water,” Doth said.

She’s getting used to water restrictions. She gave up a garden because of an ordinance requiring hand watering. Residents are allowed to water lawns only twice a week, and never in the heat of the day.

Powell, the Lincoln County commissioner, said residents will have to start investing in forest health to protect the watersheds. She would like downstream desert and grassland cities to recognize their stake in the situation and pitch in.

Paying for thinning
Pooling of funds for forest restoration is needed across the West, said Brent Racher, president of the New Mexico Forest Industry Association.

“I do think it’s the future,” he said.

He estimates it would cost $5 billion to clean up his state’s forests. “No single entity can afford to do it alone.”

Cities across the West are starting to pay, in one way or another, for surrounding fire-prone forests.

This year, Santa Fe’s municipal water system started kicking in a quarter-million dollars a year from customers’ bills to help the Forest Service thin the forests above the New Mexico capital.

Colorado Springs, Colo., municipal-water customers are putting millions into pipeline replacement, road repairs and erosion prevention after two years of fires burned more than 30,000 acres above city reservoirs, said Mark Shea, the city utility’s watershed planner.

In Flagstaff, a series of costly fires helped the city sell a $10 million bond to voters. One fire in 2010 resulted in a debris flood much like Ruidoso’s, causing massive neighborhood damage and temporarily knocking out one of the city’s supply pipelines.

The city calculated it would have to pay $22 million for new wells if a similar fire bled silt and ash into its Lake Mary water supply, City Manager Kevin Burke said. Dredging the reservoir could cost up to $45 million.

Flagstaff’s bond measure passed with 74 percent of the vote.

‘Tremendous disconnect’
Looking down on the Mogollon Rim by helicopter this fall, SRP water-rights analyst Rebecca Davidson pointed to bare patches on the western edge of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire. It was the first of two giant fires in the range that consumed about a half-million acres each in the ponderosa forest. Much of it remains bare.

“There are areas that will take decades in order for those soils to soften up and retain water,” she said.

Other patches where the soil remained viable have converted to scrubby oak, or are growing new thickets that could repeat the cycle.

“You can see how thick some of these are, and the opportunity for future burning,” she said.

The utility is partnering with Northern Arizona University to study how much the forest’s health affects the water supply.

“We see a tremendous disconnect with people in the Salt River Valley and Phoenix, and their understanding of the importance of the watershed,” Davidson said.

It’s clear enough to the cities that dealt with SRP’s runoff after Rodeo-Chediski. Tempe had to pump water it had banked underground to dilute reservoir water because fire-related pollution reacted with chlorine treatment to push some chemicals beyond allowable limits.

“We’re always concerned with watershed health and we’ve tried to take a pretty active role with SRP,” city water manager Eric Kamienski said.

But when it comes to funding for forest thinning, Kamienski argued that it’s “a federal responsibility.”

“Establishment of the federal forest preserves was exactly for watershed protection,” he said.

But former water lawyer and U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told The Arizona Republic there’s a case for Valley water customers pitching in, especially given the federal government’s investment in the water projects that supply them.

“Our water comes off of these watersheds,” he said, “and it can be enhanced (through forestry).”

It costs roughly $1,000 an acre and in some terrain twice that to thin a forest. In Arizona alone, the Forest Service has set a goal of collaborating with industry and local partners to thin a million acres over 20 years.

It’s a daunting task, but water is everything to Arizona, said Covington, of NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute.

“It is the basis of our economic sustainability in our state.”

Part 4: Climate Change

The odds of catastrophic wildfires raging across the Arizona landscape will grow rapidly as temperatures climb, according to scientists and foresters, increasing the danger for firefighters and the wildland communities they’re called on to protect.

The region’s trees are more stressed by heat and drought than at any point since the 1500s, according to tree-ring analysis. The conditions have contributed to unprecedented fires that have burned more than 4 million acres statewide since 2002.

The rising temperatures predicted by most computer models — at least a few degrees Fahrenheit globally — would make such conditions the norm by the latter half of this century, Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher Park Williams said. His projections point that way whether the world continues burning fossil fuels as usual or makes major energy advances by 2050.

“Every single (climate) model says the same thing,” Williams said.

It’s a somber forecast in a state where nearly a quarter-million structures have been built in areas vulnerable to wildfire since 1990, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.

Regional average temperatures already have climbed a few degrees since 1970, and Williams’ research indicates a strong connection between heat-induced drought and tree-killing fires. The trend toward deeper and hotter droughts portends not just fiercer fires but, according to other researchers, a dwindling pine forest.

Yet Arizona’s elected officials have not factored climate change into policies for managing either forests or fire risks, nor have they addressed greenhouse-gas emissions. Rather, they have in recent years moved away from climate-related policy.

Gov. Jan Brewer and some state legislators have publicly questioned a human link to climate change, and in 2011 the state backed out of the Western Climate Initiative’s emissions-trading program embraced by former Gov. Janet Napolitano. The initiative is intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere, and dependence on foreign oil.

Nancy Selover, a research professor at Arizona State University, has served as the state’s climatologist since 2007, collecting climate data and sharing it with anyone who requests it. Numerous groups have made inquiries but she has yet to hear from the Legislature or Brewer’s office, Selover said.

Were state leaders to ask, her response would be nuanced.

“I try not to get into attribution,” Selover said, when asked if human activities are contributing to climate change. Multiple factors affect the climate, she said, adding, “I suspect we (humans) have speeded it up.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with hundreds of U.S. and international scientists reporting to the United Nations, this year raised its estimate to 95 percent for the likelihood that human influences have warmed the Earth.

University of Arizona extension Forester Steve Campbell said he is not aware of any state program to adapt forests to a changing climate, and federal foresters are just now grasping “that climate change is starting to affect fire behavior.” Fires like Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow — the massive canopy-blitzing burns of the last decade — feed on the dryness of fuels as well as their overabundance, Campbell said.

“It’s not just the density (of the forest). It’s not just our mismanagement. The world is changing too,” he said. “We’re paying a double fine now, I guess, with climate change.”

State Forester Scott Hunt and the state Forestry Division did not respond to interview requests or e-mailed questions.

More chaparral
Yarnell, the central Arizona community where winds drove a chaparral fire that killed 19 firefighters last summer, was primed to burn by extreme drought and fine fuels dried to 6 percent moisture, according to the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Report.

Chaparral’s propensity to dry rapidly and burn hot makes it particularly hazardous around homes. Unlike trees, the slender, oily shrubs can change from moist bushes to kindling in days or even hours when baking in the triple-digit heat that socked Yarnell in late June.

If the climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are reasonably accurate, much more of the forested Mogollon Rim country will become chaparral later this century.

The beginning of such a transformation already appears to be following big forest fires such as Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow in Arizona and Las Conchas in New Mexico. Don Falk, a fire ecologist at the University of Arizona, said some of the hottest burn patches from those fires are coming back as thick chaparral or Gambel oak rather than pines. Seedlings are crowded out.

“The changes in these ecosystems due to climate alone are probably (over) decades,” Falk said. “With high-intensity disturbances, you can get to a tipping point in one year.”

Williams, the Los Alamos geographer, finds that increasing warmth places a “bull’s-eye” over Arizona and New Mexico pine forests that already are living close to the edge, just above the deserts.

“It’s a grim story,” he said.

‘Megadrought’ effects
Annual temperatures measured at weather stations high and low across Arizona have on average risen a few degrees — from the high 50s to the low 60s — since 1970, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

In the 1970s, the statewide annual average hit 60 degrees in only two years. Since 1988, it has never dropped below 60 degrees.

The trend line is the same for the summer wildfire season.

Added warmth forces trees to use more water, so warming will influence forest health and combustibility regardless of future precipitation rates.

Tree rings provide a record of dry and wet cycles, revealing when annual growth slows or accelerates. Williams compared the effects of previous “megadroughts,” as told by paltry growth in tree rings, with the stress from drought that projected increases of a few degrees Fahrenheit will add. He determined that most trees now living here can’t take the 21st century’s heat.

“Throughout most of the Southwest, regardless of the (chosen climate) scenario, forests are not survivable,” Williams said.

His paper, published with colleagues last year in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the yearly area of moderately to severely burned Southwestern forests since 1980 roughly mirrored spikes in heat-related drought stress. The parallel holds for other tree killers such as bark beetles.

Looking back on the worst regional drought of the last 1,000 years — in the 1570s and 1580s — scientists found a massive tree die-off. Trees from that period would still be around today if it weren’t for the drought. Those 16th century megadrought conditions have occurred in only 5 percent of years during the last millennium — but in five of the last 14 years, Williams found.

Calling today’s drought climate change — instead of weather — is tricky, like blaming any given hurricane on fossil fuels. But as with killer storms, scientists say the likelihood of major droughts and fires in a given year rises with the temperature.

At current carbon emissions and the attendant temperature increase, Williams’ computer modeling found that the 2050s and beyond will routinely feel like the 1580s to trees. By the end of the century, that will be the case in eight out of 10 years.

‘Improving their chances’
Rather than cause for despair, though, advocates of forest restoration say trees’ uncertain adaptation to climate change is further cause for action.

The prescription generally calls for thinning forests that have grown thick from a century of aggressive suppression of natural wildfires. The remaining trees would have less competition for scarce moisture. In a healthy forest, trees receive adequate water and sunlight and are able to resist drought, fire and insect infestations.

“We’re improving their chances of making it through that (climate) bottleneck,” said Diane Vosick, policy director for Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. Healthy people have the best shot at surviving contact with a room full of flu victims, she said, just as healthy trees are best at fighting drought.

The institute has championed projects such as Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a Forest Service plan to enlist industry as a partner in thinning a million acres of Arizona pines over 20 years.

“If we burn it up,” Vosick said, “we’re forgoing options of having a forest there.”

The region was primed for massive fires even without climate change, said Craig Allen, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who has studied northern New Mexico’s forests since the 1980s. Firefighters protected a thickening fuel base for most of the 20th century, and then an ocean-influenced wet cycle in the 1980s and 1990s “fluffed up” the tree canopy. When drought arrived, fires went rogue.

“Now the bill’s coming due,” Allen said.

Pacific Ocean surface temperatures shift every decade or so, heavily influencing the West’s weather and droughts. The pattern will shift to wet again, likely soon, Allen said.

It will dampen fire potential for a time, but the next droughts are expected to worsen with climate change. He hopes for a concerted effort to help the forests adapt, starting with thinning historically dry, south-facing slopes to create firebreaks of the kind that aerial photos show nature maintained through the early 20th century.

“This is an existential crisis for forests of the Southwest,” he said.

Bleak future
In Arizona, U.S. Forest Service researchers have mapped an especially bleak future for the 4 million acres of ponderosa pine that stretch along and above the Mogollon Rim.

Using a status-quo scenario for greenhouse-gas emissions, the Rocky Mountain Research Station office in Moscow, Idaho, projected the tree’s habitat will shrink steadily this century until practically blinking out with two small islands of ponderosa remaining above either end of the Rim by 2090.

The work is based on established growth zones similar to those that gardeners follow when choosing what to plant. Rising temperatures are shifting where the trees can survive, and Arizona’s forest already is on the southern edge of the species’ range.

The maps aren’t absolutes. Some trees may persist in unlikely places due to extraordinary genes, and other surprises may occur. But they portend a seriously altered ecosystem.

“It’s well-known in plant geography that plant distributions are controlled by climate,” said Jerry Rehfeldt, who retired from the Forest Service after helping map the futures of Western tree species. “So if climate changes, so does plant distribution. It’s quite simple.”

He expects chaparral and desert to encroach on Arizona’s pine country.

“The impacts are unbelievably huge,” he said, “especially in the interior West.”

The Arizona Legislature has been silent on climate change in recent years. The exception is repeated attempts by the Legislature’s far-right wing, unsuccessful so far, to block any policies that might stem from the 1992 United Nations conference on Environment and Development. Critics fear the “Agenda 21” that resulted from that treaty is an attempt to impose a one-world-rule on environmental matters.

State Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, doesn’t believe climate change is man-made. His belief reflects that of many GOP members of the Legislature, which explains the absence of climate-related legislation.

“I’m not one that thinks in the scheme of things that we have a whole lot of effect on what the environment’s doing,” said Crandell, whose eastern Arizona district includes many areas hit by recent megafires. “We can pollute, we can do those kinds of things, but I’m not sure that in climate change … that humans have that much effect on completely changing the climate in the world.”

Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Sierra Club in Arizona, said the Legislature is out of step with the general public on climate change.

“Most Arizonans do believe in it,” Bahr said. “The problem is with our elected officials.”

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