Arizona to increase use of inmate teams to reduce wildfire risk

Ron Dungan / KJZZ

Teams of inmates clear the desert near Apache Junction.

In late summer, a group of inmates cut brush in the desert near Lost Dutchman State Park, removing weeds and low branches near houses, to make the desert less combustible.

“So our teams are trying to reduce the risk of forest fires and also trying to bring the desert back to a more natural state, which involves less fuel on the ground and just a healthier state,” said Russell Benford of the forestry department. and Arizona Fire Management. . “They are cleaning up some of the more exotic vegetation that has grown. They prune some of the native vegetation so that it does not create fuel for the ladders. And they try to create a space between the patches of vegetation, so that the fire cannot spread so easily. “

Wildfires are a natural part of the Arizona landscape. Historically, small fires burned frequently in the West. But foresters have kept fire from the earth for over a century. The amount of fuel in the forest began to increase, and forest fires began to burn more and more. By the time the foresters realized they had a problem, it was too late for a quick fix.

State forestry director David Tenney told lawmakers at a committee meeting in February that the problem was worsening.

In March, the state adopted the Arizona Healthy Forests initiative, which calls for the use of inmate teams to help clear the fuel in the forest. Healthy Forests went through the committee and Governor Doug Ducey later signed on.

As the fires increase, so does the state’s population. Rural communities rise up against the forest. They invade the high desert. This overlap between houses and the forest is known as the urban interface.

A few years ago, the Forestry Department conducted a forest fire risk assessment in over 500 communities and found most of them to be at moderate to high risk of forest fires.

    Fire Telegraph


The Telegraph Fire burned over 180,000 acres.

In June, the Telegraph Fire burned more than 180,000 acres, despite the best efforts of firefighters. The fire burned down near Globe and Superior and destroyed several homes, including one that belonged to the Speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers.

“Our house burned down and our barns burned down and we pretty much lost everything above the ground,” said Bowers, “the trees, the forest, the apple trees, everything burned down. And it went in style, I mean it was, uh, it’s Bowers ruin now, so. “

As the Telegraph Fire burned, Ducey summoned lawmakers to a special session, in part to fund healthy forests. Arizona already has inmate firefighting teams; Healthy forests will expand their role.

“What the Healthy Forest Initiative allows us to do is really increase our capacity to do more,” said John Richardson, Arizona Department of Forestry.

The goal is to clear 20,000 acres per year and provide vocational training for inmates. The first efforts will be devoted to the protection of the urban interface. But many acres that require treatment are on federal land, where the state has no jurisdiction. A recently expanded program allows government agencies to work together. The state has already started to take advantage of it.

“We are committed. We have a very incredible opportunity ahead of us, ”said Richardson.

Bowers says he wished that kind of work could be done in the Globe-Miami area.

“In my case, I certainly would have liked the opportunity to clear the forest that was very close to me, and I am unable to do so,” Bowers said. “So now it’s too late. The forest is gone, my place is gone, the barns are gone, the studio is gone, I mean it’s gone.


The Telegraph Fire, which burned near Superior and the Globe-Miami area.

But the Forest Service has struggled to clear Arizona’s forests for about a decade. He originally hoped to cut up to 50,000 acres a year, but he only cut a fraction because he can’t find a market for the lumber. He recently withdrew from a competitive bidding process to find those markets.

He remains committed to the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, but it is unclear how he plans to proceed.

“We have seen for a long time that at the scale of the logging that the Forest Service wants to do, there is no industry to do as much logging,” said Joe Trudeau, of the Center for Diversity. biological.

Which begs the question, can the state succeed where the Forest Service has failed?

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Martin E. Berry