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Agriculture secretary tours Southwest wildfires

In a June 14, 2011 photo, people watch the growing plume of smoke from across Highway 92 as the Monument Fire burns in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, Ariz. Fires have devoured hundreds of square miles in the Southwest and Texas since wildfire season began several weeks ago. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Greg Bryan)

In a June 14, 2011 photo, people watch the growing plume of smoke from across Highway 92 as the Monument Fire burns in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, Ariz. Fires have devoured hundreds of square miles in the Southwest and Texas since wildfire season began several weeks ago. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Greg Bryan)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got a firsthand look Wednesday at the hundreds of square miles in New Mexico and Arizona that have been ravaged by wildfire in recent weeks, including an area burning near the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory.

From the air and on the ground, it was clear to Vilsack how rapidly the flames moved across the mountains near Los Alamos. He was comforted to know that crews have kept the fire from reaching the lab, but it’s still a concern, he said.

“We’re working hard to try to contain that fire as quickly as possible,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Firefighters are a long way from containing the Las Conchas fire. However, crews along the Arizona-New Mexico border have nearly corralled a blaze that earned the title of the largest in Arizona history after scorching nearly 841 square miles, including about 25 square miles in New Mexico.

Vilsack saw one area where the Wallow fire had completely surrounded a town. Thinning and other preventative steps taken by the community kept the flames at bay.

“That’s the key,” Vilsack said. “That’s part of the reason we’ve put a concerted effort in the Forest Service in the last two years to work to protect communities to make them more fire resistant and you do that by adequately treating the timber areas that are around the communities.”

He pointed to the need for governments to collaborate with the private sector to leverage dollars and make the task less daunting.

“The reason we’re in this situation isn’t because of what has occurred recently,” he said. “It’s really several decades of focusing on fire suppression and not doing the work of thinning out the forests and properly restoring them.”

In Arizona, the Forest Service is proposing the Four Forests Initiative, which is expected to help clear about 50 square miles a year and use the discarded brush for construction material. Through arrangements with contractors, Vilsack said the program could eventually impact more than 1 million acres.

The other key to tackling the nation’s overgrown forests and preventing catastrophic blazes like those in Arizona and New Mexico is having adequate funding for both firefighting efforts and restoration work.

“You do it one forest at a time, one community at a time and you make sure you have the resources to allow you to properly maintain and to properly fight fires,” he said. “I can’t over-emphasize that point. You can’t be robbing the maintenance budget, nor can you allow the stewardship contracting powers of the Forest Service to lapse.”

Vilsack called the fires burning in the Southwest some of the worst in years. He said even after the embers die down, land managers and communities will be faced with flood risks.

“This is not just a one or two month fight,” he said. “This is potentially a several-year fight.”

The U.S. Forest Service, which is overseen by Vilsack, has nearly 9,000 personnel assigned to more than 130 wildfires across the country. Many of them are focused on blazes in the Southwest.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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