Arizona Wildfires Trigger Heated Rhetoric

By: - June 28, 2002 12:00 am

The only thing that may be hotter than the Rodeo-Chediski fire that has burned more than 400,000 acres of forest is the political rhetoric over how the fires might have been prevented or, at least, kept from becoming the inferno that has burned nearly 400 homes in eastern Arizona.

Within days of the June 19 outbreak of the fire, which originated near Cibecue on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, Arizona political leaders from Governor Jane Hull to several members of the Congressional delegation were blaming environmentalists for deterring efforts to prevent such a blowup in the forests.

Environmentalists have fired back, stating that they support reasonable efforts to prevent the loss of property, but don’t want to see the forests damaged through logging and grazing.

No one disagrees with the assessment that Arizona is a tinderbox following droughts in the six of the past seven years. The forests are overgrown with brush that has dried out under drought conditions, creating fuel that will ignite quickly and allow fire to spread rapidly.

“I’ve been in Arizona 40 years and I’ve never seen the forests so bad,” Mrs. Hull said. She blames environmentalists for blocking logging, grazing and forest management techniques that would clear out brush and small trees and potentially reduce the danger for superheated, rapidly spreading fires.

“The policies that are coming from the East Coast, that are coming from the environmentalists, that say we don’t need to log, we don’t need to thin our forests, are absolutely ridiculous,” Mrs. Hull said. “Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires and I, for one, have had it.”

Governor: “Clean Up The Forests”

Mrs. Hull said she wants to send a “strong message to Congress that we’ve got to clean up these forests.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also criticized environmental groups, which Mr. Kyl said have forced the U.S. Forest Service to spend 40 per cent of its annual budget defending itself against lawsuits from environmental groups.

The Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club is one of a number of environmental groups that have blasted Mrs. Hull’s and Mr. Kyl’s comments.

“Conservationists, including the Sierra Club, have urged saving the large fire-resistant old-growth trees and have supported thinning the forest of underbrush and smaller trees (12 inches or smaller in diameter),” a news release from the group states.

“The Sierra Club has also supported controlled burning to remove the underbrush, under the right weather conditions with adequate moisture … and low winds. The types of activities would better mimic natural conditions and leave in place the most fire-resistant trees the large old pines.

“There is no way to totally avoid fire in the forest; it has always been part of the forest as much as weather, but minimizing the impacts is possible,” the Sierra Club release states. “…The intense drought conditions are clearly a major factor in the fires; there has been about one-fourth the normal rains and snow in most of these areas over the last year. …It is certainly a reach on the part of the politicians to blame conservationists for the weather.”

Bas Aja, executive vice president and director of government affairs for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, also criticized environmental groups for deterring logging and grazing that would keep down the fuel load in forests and on other public lands. The groups have stopped logging and grazing leases “because we may not have conducted a sufficient in-depth analysis of the cumulative impact of these activities on a single species of snail,” Mr. Aja said.

Timothy Ingalsbee of the Western Fire Ecology Center, Eugene, Ore., agrees with the need to thin small trees and clear underbrush in some areas, and also to use “prescribed,” or controlled burns, to help replicate the effects of nature before people started aggressively fighting forest fires about 100 years ago. But Mr. Ingalsbee disputes the notion that commercial logging, in particular, can have a positive impact on the health of forests. He points to a U.S. General Accounting Office report from 1999 that states “most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value.” That fact raises “further questions as to the intentions of the timber industry and their supporters,” Mr. Ingalsbee said.

The U.S. General Accounting Office has produced numerous reports in recent years regarding fire prevention in the national forests and other issues surrounding fire prevention. One GAO report last year stated that the Forest Service had 1,671 projects in the 2001 fiscal year to lessen the likelihood of fires. “Of these projects, 20 (about 1 per cent) and been appealed and none had been litigated.” Aides to Mr. Kyl could not identify any particular lawsuit that has prevented the Forest Service from implementing its 10-year plan, launched last year, to reduce fire dangers.

Congressman Sees Flawed’ Forest Management

Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, a Republican from the 1st District and a native of Snowflake, not far from the Rodeo-Chediski fire, said in a statement that he sees a much broader problem with decades of “flawed” forest management.

“Forest policies over the last several decades, particularly the policy of fire suppression, have resulted in an abundance of fuel load, with the dead and dying smaller trees acting as tinder around the larger trees,” Mr. Flake’s statement reads. “While fires occur on a regular basis, they typically clear the forest of the smaller trees and foliage, leaving the larger trees without permanent damage. However, the fires currently burning in the Western U.S. are on land with large fuel loads and are permanently burning the large trees, completely devastating the forest, and causing damage that will take centuries to repair.”

Stephen J. Pyne, a historian and Arizona State University biology professor who has written several books and numerous articles on fire, said the problems in America’s Western forests are much more complex than those “advancing political agendas” understand.

The buildup to this summer’s fires has been centuries in the making, Mr. Pyne said. Settlement in the West led to the thinning of native herds of deer and other large animals that helped keep grasses and brush in check. Once industrialization took hold in America, society took it upon itself to fight all fires that have helped restore the ecological balance and, over the long run, would have made the gigantic Rodeo-Chediski fire less likely.

“With several years of drought, the right conditions with fuel in the forest, you have created what amounts to something like a Perfect Storm’ scenario,” Mr. Pyne said. Although Mr. Pyne said he believes prescribed burns can be useful, it’s not so easy to reintroduce fire to an environment in which it has been actively suppressed for a century.

“A lot of prescribed fires have gotten out of hand,” Mr. Pyne said, noting that a prescribed fire that ran wild near Los Alamos, N.M., ended up destroying hundreds of homes and costing the federal government about billion in restitution to property owners.

Mr. Pyne said any attempt to change the environment of the expansive forests of the West will take decades; meanwhile, he said, there are more practical steps that can be taken to reduce the risk that fire and humans will meet with tragic and costly consequences.

The fact that more and more Arizonans are choosing to build in the woods needs the attention of government, Mr. Pyne said. He noted that Alpine, where he and his wife live, has recently required houses to be built with noncombustible roofs. Homeowners are required to clear the land around their cabins and other homes to make it less likely that a fire in nearby woods will spread to dwellings.

That’s part of the effort of the Fire Management Division of the Arizona State Land Department. The Fire Management Division doesn’t fight wildland fires, but it does provide training to those who do. The agency coordinates intergovernmental agreements among the many local and federal state agencies charged with fighting wildland fires in the state. And the division also works toward fire prevention, through visits to homeowners and business owners in the fire-risky parts of the state, said Kirk Rowdabaugh, director of fire management for Arizona.

Attitudes Must Change

“There are a lot of public attitudes that have to change,” Mr. Rowdabaugh said. “Arizona has a lot of people who want to get away from it all, to live and run a business in the woods. But if they’re building with fire-prone materials, if they haven’t cleared the land around their home and don’t keep it clear, they’re at much greater risk for getting burned out.”

Mr. Rowdabaugh said even when homeowners see the light, the “next thing they’ll say is that the homeowners association won’t let them take a lot of these steps.” He said business owners, too, need to understand that the forests have to sometimes be cleared near their businesses and that can interrupt the rustic view for a while.

“Some of this management may take some days or weeks to get done, but you have to balance that against the possibility that, with a fire like we’ve got now, that if you’re burned out and the forest burns down next to you, you might be out of business for a long time,” Mr. Rowdabaugh said.

Mr. Pyne, the historian and author, said he also would like to see the insurance industry step in, as it did with property owners building in flood- and earthquake-prone areas, to price insurance policies according to the risk and the efforts builders make to reduce those risks.

Insurance Firms AWOL’

“Where are the insurance companies on this?” Mr. Pyne asked. “They’re AWOL.”

Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor and former secretary of the interior, said that the cost-effectiveness of preventing wildland fire is clear. Management programs can cost to an acre to run; fighting fire can cost ,000 an acre. Still, he said, “it’s easier to get billion for fighting fires and relief than it is for million of prevention.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Pyne said he thinks the culture is turning slowly.

“For decades, the thinking was that all fire was bad and had to be extinguished,” Mr. Pyne said. “Over the last 25 or 35 years, the federal agencies that prevent fire and fight fire have tried to change their approach. When you have firefighters dying in forest fires and property being destroyed, though, it’s slow to change the idea that every fire must be put out. This isn’t like urban firefighting and fire prevention, where you’re always trying to save lives and property. Some fires in remote areas should be allowed to burn.”

Mr. Pyne agrees with Mr. Babbitt’s contention, though, that management of forests is much less dramatic than fighting fire, the courage and sacrifices of which from time to time capture the public imagination.

“Prescribed fire doesn’t need a policy, that’s already there,” Mr. Pyne said. “What it needs is a poet.”

Daniel Burnette covers state government for the Arizona Capitol Times. This story is reprinted courtesy of that newspaper and any further use without its permission is prohibited.

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