Arizona forester seeking to double budget

Arizona forester seeking to double budget

01 January 2014

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USA — The Arizona state forester is hoping to nearly double his budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 after a series of damaging wildfires, one of which killed 19 firefighters near Yarnell.

Forester Scott Hunt is asking for $13.5 million to, among other things, hire 15 staffers, replace firefighting and communications equipment and create a $2 million fund that would help thin trees and shrubs on state land and private property to reduce wildfire risk.

The request was submitted in October after the June 30 Yarnell Hill Fire but before the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued a blistering report in December critical of the agency’s operations during that blaze.

In his request to Gov. Jan Brewer, Hunt acknowledged the $6.2 million increase is “substantial,” but he said it is needed if his office is to cope with the increasing size and scope of wildfires as well as encourage preventive steps that would reduce wildfire risk.

Hunt outlined the conditions that have strained the Foresty Division’s ability to respond to a fire season that stretches from February through September: overgrown forests, population growth in the wildlands, drought and diminishing federal funds.

“The impacts of these uncontrollable changes on the number, nature and consequences of wildfires in the state have been profound, as evidenced in every recent fire season,” Hunt wrote. “ ‘Large’ fires that used to burn hundreds of acres have been replaced with ‘megafires’ that burn thousands of acres in a single afternoon.”

The request might have traction with lawmakers, who have watched the firefighting developments all summer and fall. When the legislative session convenes Jan. 13, it will be the first chance for lawmakers to formally respond to issues raised by fires that raced across nearly 21,000 acres in Arizona.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, has talked about the need to help local governments and homeowners with the costs of reducing wildfire risk through thinning and clearing.

His Senate counterpart, Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, is toying with the idea of a $25 million natural-resources fund for Arizona’s state land, which he said has long been neglected. The money could be used for thinning, land management and fire suppression, he said.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is dusting off a bill introduced in 2007 that called for a variety of moves to reduce wildfire risk, including changes to building codes, zoning restrictions, and requirements to clear fire-prone properties of brush and trees.

Many of those practices were highlighted in a series of stories The Republic ran in December.

“It’s going to be uncomfortable for some people,” Kavanagh said. “(But) we have to have some restrictions on housing.”

Kavanagh said reducing the state’s wildfire risk will require work from all levels of government. But there are moves the state can make, and he’d like to empower a state fire-safety panel to return to the Legislature in 2015 with recommendations on what is doable.

Although many of the ideas he is considering were already vetted by a Forest Health Committee appointed by the governor before the 2007 bill, Kavanagh said the recommendations should be updated. With last summer’s fires fresh in lawmakers’ minds, particularly the deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire, Kavanagh said, lawmakers can no longer “keep our heads in the sand like ostriches.”

“Yarnell is not changing these needs; it’s bringing them back into public awareness,” he said. “Politically, they’ve been difficult to do.”

The state forester’s budget request includes a proposal to expand staffing by 15 positions, up from the current 39. Of those 15, 11 would be directly related to supervising firefighting activities.

The office doesn’t have enough fire managers to be on scene and in control of fires that are either burning on or threatening state and private land, Hunt wrote. And although the agency has 80 temporary workers it can call on when multiple fires are raging, it increases the workload on permanent employees to manage the part-time assistance.

Pay is also an issue, as state district foresters lag behind their federal counterparts by 30 to 40 percent, Hunt wrote. He is asking for money to hire three fire and forestry managers at $79,000 each, plus $56,400 for travel. His request includes two assistant fire-management officers and six assistant bosses for the inmate crews that are deployed on some fires.

Other personnel requests include money to hire a full-time fire-training officer and a tactical aircraft manager to direct helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft during fires.

The agency also needs to replace aging equipment, from crew carriers that are more than 12 years old (and had been used when the state purchased them) and $170,000 for equipment, such as repeaters for radio signals, a dispatch phone system and engineering equipment to track flights.

Brewer’s budget staffers are reviewing the request as they prepare her overall budget proposal for fiscal 2014. She is expected to unveil her budget Jan. 17.

Kavanagh, the House Appropriations chairman, has cautioned that there is little room for adding new spending in fiscal 2014. But, he said, he is “resigned” to seeing at least $200 million in growth over the current $8.5 billion budget.

Given that, Hunt’s request for $6.2 million in new funding is workable, he said.

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