USA — Reducing wildfire risk rocketed to the top of state priorities after last year’s devastating fire season. Nineteen firefighters died combating the Yarnell Hill Fire. The Doce Fire outside Prescott was another stark reminder of the risk to lives and property in Arizona’s tinder-dry wildlands, where catastrophic wildfires have raged over the last decade.
But for all the good intentions, what emerged from the Arizona Legislature was a plan to make a plan, with $1.4 million to pay for reducing hazardous vegetation on state trust lands. Work would begin no earlier than January 2016, when the plan is due.
“I thought there was a lot more momentum for dealing with the forest issue,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “I suspect members are scared away by the cost, which is monumental.”
Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, estimated the need, $100 million, would not be met for decadesat the current funding pace of $1.4 million a year.
Despite the hand-wringing over forests, lawmakers’ attention was diverted by the child-welfare crisis, the uproar over the controversial religion bill, Senate Bill 1062, and the budget.
Bills that proposed sweeping changes, such as zoning codes and building regulations for construction in areas that border wildlands, died. One bill sought $25 million for improving state-trust land management; another sought $25 million for removing hazardous fuels from state lands.
Even Kavanagh’s idea of a committee to study new codes for properties near wildlands withered in the face of what he called a “Pavlovian reaction” from rural lawmakers, who fear regulations would reduce property values.
“This is a good time to not live in the urban-wildland interface,” he said, referring to the fire-prone areas.
A pattern of inaction
For people like Tony Terrasi, such admonishments are no comfort.
The dry, brittle weeds on land in and around Prescott Valley alarm him, to the point he’s made himself a nuisance at Town Hall. He’s tried in vain to get authorities to mow vegetation he sees as a fire risk.
Pointing to a field with knee-high, dried-out vegetation, Terrasi said, “I want to see this gone.”
As owner of 30 lots, he is required to keep his property mowed so grasses and weeds don’t exceed 1 foot in height. Yet, Prescott Valley doesn’t follow its own rules, he complained, as he showed a reporter properties where weeds exceeded the limit.
Tumbleweeds were stuck on barbed-wire fencing near roadsides, and darkened soil marked where a small fire had started in early spring.
Town officials say they have a program to address overgrown lots, but it doesn’t extend to the state, which owns trust land in and around the central Arizona town. A lightning strike on a tract of remote state trust land ignited last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire.
Fernando Gonzalez, the town’s code-enforcement supervisor, said town officials have talked to the state about fire barriers or fire breaks.
“But the response I’ve gotten from the state is (no action), due to lack of funds and lack of manpower due to the recession,” he said.
State land officials did not return a call seeking comment, but state forestry officials said they had to go back to 2008 to find the last time the state set aside money to address fire-prone overgrowth on state trust lands. That $1 million appropriation was never spent on the work. Instead, it was swept for other purposes during the early response to the recession.
Still, the Forestry Division has been cutting overgrowth on trust lands, using whatever funding it can find. Work this year around Flagstaff has been helped by leveraging money Flagstaff raised from a watershed-protection bond, State Forester Scott Hunt said.
A plan to make a plan
This year, lawmakers’ wide-ranging hopes for wildland protections were condensed into a single bill.
House Bill 2343 authorizes $1.4 million to pay for the development of a plan to remove hazardous vegetation from the state’s 9.2 million acres of trust land. It requires the state land commissioner and state forester to collaborate on the effort and sets a January 2016 deadline.
Until the plan is done, state officials can’t say where the money will go.
In its original form, the bill from Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, called for $25 million to thin trees on state trust lands. Barton said she sponsored the bill in response to the catastrophic wildfires that have ripped across Arizona over the last 12 years.
“It’s about making it more safe,” she said. “A lot of this land is near cities and towns.”
Pat Graham, state director of the Nature Conservancy, said even the watered-down legislation, which passed unanimously, was a welcome recognition of the need.
“There’s been a lack of attention in funding for our state lands, or even thinking of them as assets,” Graham said.
The new bill does allow for partnering government and private groups. Graham said his group has offered to help.
“We’ve got a lot of science we’ve done on habitat conditions across the state,” he said.
The Sierra Club takes a less enthusiastic view of the Legislature’s response.
“The main thing is they got some money to do something,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the club’s Grand Canyon chapter. But the Legislature lost out on an opportunity to address the wider needs of the state through a cooperative plan that would involve federal and county governments, as well as private-property owners, she said.
As The Republic documented in a series last year, 1.9 million acres of land within the state had been thinned over the last decade. The efforts to reduce wildfire risk on forests and chaparral are equivalent to one and a half Grand Canyon National Parks, but it covers only a fraction of the need.
Bahr lamented that more-ambitious plans foundered in the GOP-led Legislature, even though most of those proposals came from Republicans.
“They seem to be too busy looking at liability relief and trying to take over federal public lands,” she said of lawmakers’ focus.
Bahr, other conservationists and trial lawyers fought a provision that would have given the state immunity from liability for any action, or failure to take action, on state lands.
It appeared to be a reaction to the lawsuits filed against the state for the Yarnell Hill Fire. The immunity provision would have applied to the state forester, natural-resource conservation districts and state-controlled streambeds in addition to state trust lands.
The trajectory of high hopes fading into a small step forward is familiar.
In 2007, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano’s administration unveiled ambitious proposals to protect Arizona’s forests and wildlands from catastrophic fires, prompted by the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, at the time the largest blaze in state history at 468,638 acres.
But those efforts fizzled, for many of the same reasons that thwarted this year’s efforts: cost, scope and private-property rights. Since then, huge fires have become a late-spring staple in Arizona.
But it was Yarnell, a comparatively small fire, that pushed lawmakers’ emotional buttons, albeit with no results.
“If the Yarnell tragedy didn’t move people to action, I don’t know what will,” Kavanagh said.