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Arizona’s wildfire commander-in-chief

Kirk Rowdabaugh, the state forester, does not have money to burn. It all went up in flames last summer, one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.
By July 2005, the Forest Division of the state Land Department spent all
$2 million it had on hand to put out fires. Before the fiscal year’s end, the division was in debt by $4 million. That figure rises to $7.2 million counting money owed to the federal government.
The list of those with Land Department IOUs is a long one — at least 200 public agencies and private vendors that helped put out wildfires on state trust land and land under state fire protection.
“I owe money to local fire departments. I owe money to private vendors. I owe money to the Forest Service — federal partners. I owe money to everybody,” Mr. Rowdabaugh says.
It’s the not way the Land Department usually does business. Until last summer, the $2 million fund for fire suppression — renewed annually — was usually enough to do the job, if barely. Then the rains stopped. Now a continuing drought has dried out trees, brush and grass, creating the fuels that wildfires feed on.
What’s coming
And while system may be short of funds, it’s not broke, Mr. Rowdabaugh says. Anyway, he worries less about the money than he does the upcoming fire season, which could be as bad as any on record.
Mr. Rowdabaugh, 54, has been around long enough to know how bad it can get.
“I fought my first fire in 1970,” he says. That was in New Mexico.
“It was a fire not very far from where Smokey Bear was discovered. It was my second year with the Forest Service,” Mr. Rowdabaugh says.
3rd year as state forester
He is now in his third year as state forester. Governor Napolitano appointed him in August 2004. Before then, the state Land Commissioner also had the title of state forester, though often delegating duties to an assistant. Now, as a separate officer, the state forester answers directly to the governor. The Land Department oversees funding and provides administrative support.
The Forestry Division headed by Mr. Rowdabaugh does more than fight wildfires. It promotes stewardship of state and private land — from helping out with Christmas tree plantations to stabilizing the watershed.
“But truthfully,” Mr. Rowdabaugh adds, “in the last several years, more and more of our program emphasis has been put on wildland fire.”
That includes fire prevention and — more and more — fire suppression.
It’s big job for a division with about 50 employees. But Mr. Rowdabaugh’s part in fire suppression goes well beyond the Forestry Division’s payroll.
As state forester, he is Arizona’s wildfire commander-in-chief. He oversees a state network involving the coordination of 270 local fire departments and districts. All have entered into agreements with him, as state forester. These agreements, Mr. Rowdabaugh says, come with two big conditions.
“One of them says that the state forester will help train and equip and prepare the local fire departments to fight wildland fires,” he says.
The other condition is something out of the Three Musketeers. It’s one for all and all for one when it comes to fighting wildfires.
“So when Bisbee gets in trouble and says, ‘Help,’ they call the state forester and the state forester most likely turns around and says, ‘Well, let me call Oracle,’ and Oracle can go over there and assist Bisbee with its problem,” Mr. Rowdabaugh says.
Federal land fires
If a fire burns out of control on federal land, the state forester becomes the go-to guy there, too. Federal officials call Mr. Rowdabaugh, and he can bring in local fire crews.
Then there’s the land under state fire protection. That includes more than 9 million acres of state trust land — administered by the Land Department — as well as more than 12 million acres of private land outside the boundaries of any city fire department or fire district.
A local fire chief, Mr. Rowdabaugh says, “if he can, agrees to come and help other fire departments and the state forester when I have a wildland fire.”
But it’s not just a statewide network, he adds. It crosses state and even international boundaries. If California needs extra help, federal officials call Mr. Rowdabaugh, who in turn lines up Arizona fire crews. Arizona crews also have fought fires in Canada. Australian firefighters, in turn, have helped out in Arizona.
Who pays the tab≠
After the last embers cool, then it’s time to talk money. Trying to figure who owes what can be a bit like dividing up a dinner tab for a party of 10.
Fires districts pay their own way — if the fire occurs inside their jurisdiction. They also pay for outside help, though federal emergency money might be available. Feds will pay the Land Department for cost incurred by local fire departments fighting fires in national forests, parks and Indian lands. That money is passed on to the local agencies.
Most of the forest land in higher elevations falls under federal jurisdiction. But that’s not where most wildfires burned last summer, says Mr. Rowdabaugh.
They broke out in the lower deserts and grasslands, where most state trust lands are. The heavy spring rains of 2005 helped provide the fuel. Brush and grass grew rapidly, then became dry and tender as summer set in.
Last summer’s fires, he adds, “set all kinds of records for state lands for the number of fires and acres burned,” he says. “We had over a thousand fires last year. It far exceeded anything we had before.”
Mr. Rowdabaugh used his network to call on fire districts and departments from around state. He called in air tankers, on contract to the state through the federal government. He called on state prison crews, specially trained to fight wildfires. He tapped federal wildland agencies for equipment and manpower.
And, when the smoke cleared, the state firefighting fund was tapped out.
“We dug our entire hole last summer,” Mr. Rowdabaugh says.
The Central Yavapai Fire District in Prescott Valley joined nine other crews, sending in men and equipment to help battle flames in what became known as the Cave Creek Complex fire. It flared up on U.S. Forest land and burned nearly a quarter-million acres, spreading to state trust lands east of Interstate 17.
The federal government picked up most of the tab — more than $16 million overall. But state had its own obligations, stemming from the fire’s spillover into trust lands. The Central Yavapai district sent the Land Department a bill for more than $228,000, for its help on the Cave Creek and other fires on state lands.
Fire Chief Dave Curtis remembers what he got in return.
“Basically a phone call that said, ‘We have no money to pay you guys.’” Mr. Curtis says. “It was towards the end of summer, the first part of fall. And we’ve tried to get paid ever since.”
Given the fire district’s $9 million budget, a couple of hundred-thousand dollars might not seem like much. But Mr. Curtis says it’s enough to create a shortfall. If the money doesn’t come before the end of the district’s fiscal year — June 30, he says he’ll have to make some cuts.
“It’ll have to be some hard equipment and some training. We have to pay our bills,” chief Curtis says.
Down the road, south of Prescott, the Groom Creek Fire District is waiting on a $22,000 reimbursement from the Land Department. That unpaid bill and stalled payments for fire-prevention grants has the Groom Creek district running $59,000 in the red. And that’s on an annual budget of $185,000, says Groom Creek Fire Chief Todd Bentley.
Until the money comes in, Mr. Bentley says the district will be in a bind. State law frowns on fire districts running up deficits, he says.
“It puts us in a peculiar position, because of the statutory requirements,” he says.
Some fire districts haven’t been shy in their criticism, says Russ Shumate, assistant fire manager for the Land Department’s Prescott field office.
“Central Yavapai is fairly vocal about not getting paid,” Mr. Shumate says.
There’s not much he or anybody at the Land Department can do, if the money’s not there, he adds.
“It is really out of our hands. It’s in the Legislature’s hands. If the Legislature doesn’t give us money, there’s no money for us to process,” Mr. Shumate says.
As it happens, the matter has been brought to Legislature’s attention — by the Land Department as well as the governor, says Mr. Rowdabaugh, the state forester. The governor asked for a supplemental appropriation to pay last year’s debts and keep the agency from going in the hole again this year.
The Legislature took up the proposal as a strike-all in H2395. It passed the House by 57-2. It would appropriate the money sought by the Land Department, but it also contained something of a poison pill. The House version would have barred payment of money owed to the federal government for firefighting assistance. In a side note, the bill cited the federal government’s failure to reimburse the state for costs incurred by illegal aliens.
But the balance sheet, when it comes to the feds, is not so simple. At the end of 2005 fire season, Uncle Sam owed Arizona some $3 million, including money due from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Arizona, in turn, owed the feds $2.2 million, including $1.7 million for contracts on at least four air tankers — the planes used to douse wildfires with retardants, according to the Joint Legislative Budge Committee.
Through these contracts, private companies make air tankers available for Arizona, exclusively, during fire season. State Land officials, however, worry whether that will be the case going into 2006, if last year’s debt remains on the books.
Shortly before the House passed H2395, the Deputy state Land Commissioner Richard Hubbard fired off an e-mail to Michael Haener, Governor Napolitano’s deputy chief of staff.
“To obtain the contracts, we have to certify… the funds for the 2006 charges (estimated to be $2.5 million because of the potential of an extremely bad fire season). It is not possible to certify if they are owed $1.7 [million].
“Obviously, paying this federal agency is critical to addressing the needs of for the 2006 fire season,” Mr. Hubbard wrote.
The Senate, on taking up the House bill, apparently agreed. The Senate stripped the provision that barred settling up with the federal government. The Land Department, in turn, hopes that the feds — once paid — will make good on the $3 million that they owe. That money then could be used to cut checks to Groom Creek and other local fire districts, says one budget analyst.
That’s a lot of checks. The Land Department owes money to fire departments and districts from Bisbee to Kingman, as well as half-a-dozen restaurants, at least one Indian tribe and two other state agencies.
That includes $71,000 owed the Department of Corrections for the inmate firefighters. The inmates themselves did not go unpaid, says Bennie Rollins, DOC’s southern region operations director. Their wages come directly out of special fund, which the Land Department is obligated to repay.
The DOC debt could have been a lot worse, if inmate labor wasn’t such a good deal.
“An inmate receives 50 cents an hour,” Mr. Rollins says.
State Game and Fish officers, however, make more. The Land Department owes that agency more than $327,000 for help in fighting fires on state trust land.
That’s just for last year. Money for fire suppression could easily run out this year as well. The supplement appropriation should help. H2395 currently includes an additional $2.2 million to tide the firefighting fund over until June 30.
For the long-term, Mr. Rowdabaugh says, Governor Napolitano wants to increase annual fire-suppression funding to 3.5 million. The Legislature proposes to meet her part way, allocating $3.5 million for next year only, an analyst says.
If the summer fire season goes as feared, it will be money quickly spent.
“In a normal year, we fight fires either in a higher elevation or a lower elevation,” he says.
In a dry year, evergreens in the high country are ready to burn. In a wet year, grasses in the lowlands grow fast in winter rains and dry out in spring and summer. This year appears to be a dry one, despite a few showers and a bit of snowfall in March. That’s bad for the pines. But there’s still plenty of dead grass left over from the wet winter of 2005.
“All that brown fuel is just standing up tall and proud, just like it was at the end of July last summer,” Mr. Rowdabaugh says. “It’s all still standing there ready to burn. And then, because of the drought … we expect to be very, very busy up in the timber this year.”
He expects to see fires high and low. And local fire districts — though once burned — will still respond to the call, says chief Curtis of the Central Yavapai Fire District.
“We’re going to put out fires because that’s what best for the state,” he says.

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