By Terri Jo Neff
After a mini-Wildfire 101 course from the Arizona State Forester, 18 of the 19 members of legislature’s Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Energy, and Water voted in favor of Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed $100 million fire suppression and mitigation legislation.
Next up for the bill during this Special Session is a quick trip through two Rules Committees on Thursday morning. That should be followed by the House and Senate convening to consider amendments to the two identical bills, SB1001 and HB2001, which are tracking in both chambers.
Wednesday’s hours-long meeting featured a questions and answers session with David Tenney, director of Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) on the same day that two ongoing destructive wildfires near Globe -the Telegraph and the Mescal- merged with nearly 150,000 acres burned.
Ducey called the Special Session for the sole purpose to pass a wildfire-related supplemental appropriations bill. The joint committee discussed many of the bill’s targeted investments for wildfire preparedness, response, and recovery, including $76 million toward fire suppression efforts, recovery efforts, mitigation of post-fire floods, economic assistance for those displaced by fires or post-fire floods, and assistance to landowners for emergency repairs from wildfire-related infrastructure damage.
There is also nearly $25 million appropriated in the bill for DFFM and the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to partner on wildfire mitigation efforts such as removing hazardous vegetation and fire fuels. The funds include hiring 720 ADC inmates, working in 72 teams of 10 inmates, to target DFFM-designated areas across the state where mitigation is needed. The goal, said Tenney, is for the crews to cover 20,000 acres annually.
Among the questions Tenney was asked was whether Arizona should own a fleet of firefighting aircraft instead of contracting with providers. Tenney was also asked whether DFFM should purchase a handful of $500,000 firetrucks designed for off-road wilderness access that could be “borrowed” to smaller fire departments.
Tenney also noted that as of this week, Arizona’s 2021 fire season will have impacted nearly 300,000 acres. That puts the state of track for its worst fire season in history due to the combination of excessive heat in all 15 counties as well as drought conditions.
Some committee members tried to get Tenney to discuss whether Arizona’s increasingly larger wildfires are the result of climate change, but the director stuck to the purpose of the legislation -and the Special Session- which is to ensure funding for activities which can have an immediate affect on reducing fires or limiting the damage from fires.
The climate change comments received pushback from Sen. David Gowan (LD-14), who said no one is disputing there is climate change.
“Climate change happens every decade, happens every century, millennium, we have climate change,” he said.
Some Democrats questioned whether the Ducey-backed appropriations bill goes far enough as they preferred legislation addressing more than the immediate critical need. However, committee chairs Rep. Gail Griffin (R-LD14) and Sen. Sine Kerr (R-LD13) guided the discussion back onto the purpose of the legislation – to address the wildfire and post-fire flooding crisis facing Arizona now.
The only no vote was cast by Sen. Juan Mendez (D-LD26).