What More Can Be Done To Prevent Arizona Wildfires?

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, November 29, 2018 - 12:16pm
Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2018 - 6:57pm
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The Camp Fire in Northern California is being called the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century. Costs are estimated to be in the billions, and many residents are still displaced, waiting for evacuation orders to be lifted.

Now, the analysis begins — what could have prevented this? Or at least, what could have prevented the fire from doing this much damage? We wondered what Arizona is doing and what we could do to make sure its forests are not so susceptible to catastrophic fires.

For that, The Show turned to Wally Covington, who directs NAU's Ecological Restoration Institute and is a doctor of sorts for the forests of the Western U.S.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Wally, good morning.

WALLY COVINGTON: Good morning.

GOLDSTEIN: Can you give me a quick overview what kind of shape are Arizona's forests in? Because it would seem as a lay person that we've sort of dodged a bullet over the past couple of wildfire seasons, hasn't been quite as dramatic here in Arizona.

COVINGTON: Well, most of our forests are still heavily overstocked with trees. However, Arizona has been working to reduce tree density and to restore natural forest conditions. Under those kinds of conditions, these forests can't burn with the kind of intensity that threatens towns or creates the kind of flooding and erosion that we've seen over the past 30 years.

GOLDSTEIN: You probably saw the president's recent comments talking about forest mismanagement for California's fires. How far can forest management go in preventing the worst of the catastrophic fires and how much are we at the mercy of Mother Nature, or even at the mercy of people just leaving a campfire that they shouldn't leave?

COVINGTON: There are two major factors that explain the catastrophic fires that we've been having. One factor's kind of biophysical, and that's the accumulation of people post-settlement by European Americans. And the exclusion of fire has allowed these fuels to steadily accumulate, including a vast overstocking of trees. The current tree densities in most of the western forest far exceed the carrying capacity of the land. And then the other part of the biophysical factor is climate change. We now are seeing much drier, windier, hotter fire seasons that extend almost year-round now. So those are the biophysical factors. And then from a cultural standpoint, what we've seen is more and more people are building in fire prone landscapes. So those factors interact to produce the kinds of blow-up situations that we've got right now. Now I've got to say that Arizona really has made a lot of progress in this. The Forest Service, Arizona State Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management have been working to restore forest conditions and prevent these kind of catastrophic outcomes like we've seen in California lately.

GOLDSTEIN: Now is that progress in part because stakeholders are coming to the table at least moving in the same direction? Is there less sniping?

COVINGTON: Yes, there is. And one of the things that has really helped us here is the collaborative process has really advanced quite far down the road here compared to most of the Western states. So stakeholders get involved early on in large landscape restoration projects, like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, the work out at Camp Navajo, the National Guard facility. There's a real commitment by people in Arizona to restore a healthy forest and provide a healthy legacy to give to our grandchildren or great-grandchildren and so on.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I'm just gonna close out with one more question. We're thinking about the weather and weather conditions — there's talk about maybe getting some snow in the north country some time tonight. We talk about how important snowpack is when it comes to getting more precipitation. And there is more growth that could lead to more fuels. But how important is it that there is a wet winter?

COVINGTON: Wet winters are really important and especially we get a better picture from mid-March to late April of what the weather, what the soil conditions are, how much water these ecosystems have received over time, to get a better outlook right in the spring. But it's really kind of throughout the winter, that whole time period is extremely important.

GOLDSTEIN: So that will sort of tell the tale for us, then. If we're lucky enough to have a wet winter, that might mean the next wildfire season is not quite as bad.

COVINGTON: Yes, that's our hope. But with the kinds of fuels that we've got, with a month of hot, dry, windy weather, it really doesn't matter how much precipitation you had the previous year. If you get an ignition in the wrong place, you're going to have a fire.

GOLDSTEIN: Wally Covington directs NAU's Ecological Restoration Institute. Wally, thank you for the update.

COVINGTON: Yeah, thank you for having me.

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