The Wildfire Menace: Will the West Learn or Burn?

Senator Jon Kyl & Kris Kiefer.

When I was asked to make this presentation, the first thing I did was to check with Kris Kiefer on Senator Flake’s staff. Senator Flake and Senator McCain have been very active on pushing legislative reforms, and I wanted to know why, with so many announcements of forward progress on forest management, it still seemed that nothing on the scale required was getting done. I will today summarize much of the positive news, but also lay out an agenda of un-finished business, much of which is the object of our delegation’s efforts.

While some of us have been working on forest management and ecological restoration since the 1980s, much of the interest and energy in forest health began to take shape after one of Arizona’s most damaging fires, the Rodeo- Chediski in 2002. With more than 462,000 acres of ponderosa pine forests charred and hundreds of homes lost, our earlier warnings finally took on some urgency.

Governors Hull and Napolitano established committees and councils on forest health. Senator McCain and I pushed legislation to advance federal wildfire policy, such as the Wildfire Prevention Act of 2002 and the Southwest Forest Health and Wildfire Prevention Act, which eventually led to the creation of the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU. ERI has been a great asset, making sound contributions to the state and federal policy debates.

And, these federal policy advancements have led to some good on-the- ground results. In 2004, Arizona became home to the first long-term large- scale stewardship contract in the White Mountains. During the 10-year term of that contract, private industry invested $130 million in the area and mechanically treated approximately 70,000 acres.

By all accounts the effort was a success. Evidence suggests that during the Wallow Fire in 2011, as well as the San Juan Fire in 2014, the treatments caused the fast-moving crown fires to drop to the forest floor, making them easier and safer to fight. Perhaps most notably, the treatments in the Wildland-Urban Interface or WUI areas around Alpine and Nutrioso are credited with saving those towns.

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