Arizona case study
 

Project Summary


View Arizona Summary Table as a PDF document

Background

The wildfire threat facing communities in the western United States is undisputed. According to the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) fire suppression policies on public lands coupled with population growth in wildland areas created increased risk to communities from wildfire disasters. Over the past decade, scores of lives were lost, tens of thousands of square miles of land was devastated, and thousands of homes and other structures were destroyed from damage inflicted by wildfire. Increases in population in the inland West coupled with the appeal of living in closer proximity to public lands create situations that expose more people, property and infrastructure to the risk of wildfire than at any time in recent history. The GAO estimates 60-100 million acres of public land and hundreds, if not thousands, of communities in the public land interface are at risk.

While many factors contributing to the intensity of wildfires cannot be controlled—wind, weather, humidity, temperature, and drought conditions—there are many actions that can be taken in the long and short term to respond to the threat of wildland fire hazards. The two dominant national-level policies to address the risks posed by wildfires, the National Fire Plan and the Western Governor's Association (WGA) 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan, identify four common goals for wildfire management to address long term threats posed by wildfire: 1) improving fire prevention and suppression, 2) rehabilitating and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems, 3) reducing hazardous fuels, 4) promoting community assistance. With these goals in mind, communities are urged to thin, conduct controlled burns, restore forests, suppress fire, create defensible space around homes and communities, undertake public education about wildfire and create markets for skilled work forces capable of removing and processing small diameter timber and forest restoration byproducts to respond to the threat of wildfire. But little is known about what is being accomplished on the ground or what combinations of responses are used at the community level.

Great uncertainty surrounds the scope and success of community responses and why some communities manage to foster constructive responses to wildfire risks while others fail to do so. In the past decade a natural experiment has occurred in the inland portion of the western United States as communities have taken different approaches to responding to the threat of wildfire. This research investigates the scope of actions taken to adapt to wildfire risks in Arizona. The goal is to supply baseline data for what communities are doing on the ground while also providing an overview of statewide action.

Project Methods

The work in this study took place in two phases—1) a state-level analysis of wildfire risk to communities and their NFP mapresponses; 2) community-level case studies of responsive practices. The Governor's Summit to Mitigate Wildfire Hazards in the Arizona Wildlan/Urban Interface (2000) identified 61communities at the highest risk and greatest potential for loss. Of those 61 communities, 25 were awarded one or more National Fire Plan grants in 2001 or 2002. These communities served as a state-level sample frame. National Fire Plan grants awarded to each community were compiled to determine relative levels of responsiveness. Three communities were chosen based on their high level of responsiveness to their wildfire threat; Prescott, Flagstaff, Eager, while Heber-Overgaard was chosen based on a relative lack of responsiveness. The research entailed site visits to each community, in-person interviews, document and photographic analysis, participant observation and on-site tours. View Summary of Data Collection Techniques as PDF. The case studies were analyzed according to the four goals identified by the Western Governor's Association 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan.

Site visits to case study communities took place from September 2003 to June 2004; September 15-19, 2003, Prescott; December 1-4, 2003, Eager; December 8-12, 2003, Flagstaff; and Heber-Overgaard, June 7-11, 2004.

Project Findings

The four case study communities in Arizona were chosen based on their degree of responsiveness to the wildfire problem, as indicated by the ability to secure National Fire Plan funding in FY 2001-2002. Eager, Flagstaff and Prescott garnered $890,030, $1,112,049 and $657,440 each respectively. Heber-Overgaard was chosen due to the high level of risk and the low level of funding dedicated to the problem-- $50,110. By the time we did our field work in Heber-Overgaard in 2004, the town had increased its attention to its wildfire problem and was procuring greater funding to address its problem through the National Fire Plan.

Arizona is notable for its two most proactive communities—Flagstaff and Prescott. Both have undertake impressive efforts to improve fire fighting, preparedness and reduce hazardous fuels. Flagstaff is additionally noteworthy for its emphasis on restoration through the Greater Flagstaff Fuels Partnership. Eager and Heber-Overgaard in the eastern part of the state are less active than Flagstaff and Prescott. Eager has dedicated impressive resources to developing a small diameter tree utilization industry. Its focus is to unleashed economic potential in the restoration of neighboring forests.

Collaborative activity is distinguished in Prescott and Flagstaff. Flagstaff’s Ponderosa Fire Advisory Council (PFAC) is a 16-member group that includes all fire agencies within the greater Flagstaff area, along with Coconino County, Northern Arizona University, and the National Weather Service. PFAC meets once a month to discuss and act upon a variety of wildfire issues. The Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (GFFP) is an alliance of 25 academic, environmental, business and governmental organizations dedicated to testing and adapting new approaches to restoring forest ecosystem health in the forests surrounding Flagstaff. The Prescott Area Wildland/Urban Interface Commission (PAWUIC) is the main entity for coordinating activity to respond to the wildfire threat facing the Prescott area and was created to facilitate interagency cooperation. PAWUIC is a city and county jointly chartered, unpaid, volunteer, citizen-led commission that includes key individuals from city, county, state and national agencies. The Interagency Fire and Emergency Management Group (IFEMG) is part of PAWUIC but also independent of it. It brings together the Fire Chiefs, the designees and emergency management teams to work over plans including the evacuation plans.

Improving fire prevention and suppression

In Arizona, the county has no suppression responsibility. Flagstaff and Prescott have professional fire departments with paid employees. Eager is a voluntary fire department and Heber and Overgaard are unincorporated areas that support their fire department through its fire district. All fire departments were well prepared to address their respective threats. Flagstaff and Prescott have impressive building regulations to reduce the risk of wildfire to homes and property. Defensible space and evacuation are the major components to Prescott’s education program and they have a Wildland Urban Interface Coordinator who is responsible technical and administrative work involving wildland fire safety and forest health.

Reducing hazardous fuels

Arizona State Lands makes funding available through State Fire Assistance (SFA) to incentivize and assist communities to reduce hazardous fuels. All communities with the exception of Eager participated actively in hazardous fuel reduction activities through the SFA program. In Heber-Overgaard, homeowner’s associations were especially active in requiring hazardous fuel reduction through covenants and education and outreach. Flagstaff has been especially effective in changing community attitudes about risk and prescribed burning. Today, cutting trees and setting fires are so common in Flagstaff that people do not question either practice. Flagstaff also is unique because it has its own Fuel Management Division within the Fire Department that engages fuel reduction and education programs. Prescott and Yavapai County have a coordinated response to deal with hazardous fuel reduction on private property.

Restoring fire adapted ecosystems

Little restoration work is being planned and implemented in the targeted communities with the exception of Flagstaff. The Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (GFFP) is an alliance of 25 academic, environmental, business and governmental organizations dedicated to testing and adapting new approaches to restoring forest ecosystem health in the forests surrounding Flagstaff. The GFFP is dedicated to testing and adapting new approaches to restoring forest ecosystem health in the forests surrounding Flagstaff. The GFFP is seen as a major asset to the community and has been very successful in pioneering new techniques and approaches to ecosystem restoration. The Partnership seeks to analyze 100,000 acres of WUI around Flagstaff in 10,000 acre blocks per year and implement forest health and fire reduction projects. The Partnership began after several severe fires burned around the city of Flagstaff in 1996.

Promoting community assistance

Eager and Flagstaff stand out as being the most proactive in creating economic opportunities from forest by-products. A critical mass of small diameter timber (SDT) providers and utilizers is developing around Eager. Eager and Flagstaff have been working at the state level to create incentives for biomass and other renewable energy resources. Utilizers creating power from biomass have benefited from Arizona Power Service (APS) desire to find renewable energy sources. In February 2001, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) adopted the Environmental Portfolio Standard (EPS) which established goals that all utility companies that sell retail electricity in Arizona generate a percentage of their electricity from renewable resources. Twenty years from now, the GFFP envisions the greater Flagstaff area will be home to a small but thriving sector of businesses based on the ecologically sustainable utilization of forest products. Business will include primary producers of forest products, as well as “value-added” processors, such as manufacturers of fencing and custom building materials, furniture makers, wood pellets and others.

Ironically, finding a steady supply of projects and SDT is the biggest challenge facing the region. SDT producers and utilizers need a dependable pipeline of work and materials on which to build their emerging businesses. Providing this supply has proven difficult due to contracting issues, EIS problems, fires and other obstacles. In 2004 Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Eager awarded a contract for the White Mountains Stewardship Project—a ten-year, 150,000 acre project that will offer from 5,000 acres to 20,000 acres of forest lands to contractors each year, making this project the largest restoration project in the nation. Many believe the White Mountain project will be the key to successfully developing the SDT industry in the area. Stewardship contracts are the key to the White Mountain project. A stewardship contract allows for the costs of removal of small diameter residue and slash to be exchanged for the value of the excess forest products that are removed.


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Copyright©2004 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University

 
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