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House, Senate panels pass wildfire relief amid debate on climate change

In this photo provided by Joseph Pacheco, a wildfire is seen burning in Globe, Ariz., on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Joseph Pacheco via AP)

In this photo provided by Joseph Pacheco, a wildfire is seen burning in Globe, Ariz., on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Joseph Pacheco via AP)

Legislative panels gave initial approval Wednesday to a $100 million plan for fighting fires and their effects, but not before the discussion strayed into the question of climate change and whether humans are responsible for the heat and drought conditions that result in huge blazes.

The measures approved by House and Senate committees on natural resources include $75 million to most immediately fight the dozen or so active fires and prepare for the aftermath, including flooding and repairs. The package also includes nearly $25 million for “wildfire mitigation,” most of that to create 72 crews, each of 10 inmates, who would go out and reduce hazardous vegetation, mostly in areas around communities.

David Tenney, the state forester and the agency’s director, told lawmakers the additional dollars would provide a five-fold increase in the state’s current ability to clear about 4,000 acres a year.

Tenney also briefed lawmakers on the prospects for 2021 becoming one of the worst fire seasons in state history, saying that 896 blazes so far this year have charred 289,000 acres.

Last year, at the same time, only about 62,000 acres were lost. Ultimately fires consumed 900,000 acres in 2020.

But Tenney sidestepped questions from Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, about how much of this he believes is due to climate change — particularly any caused by human activity.

“Obviously, there’s people with strong feelings on both sides of that issue,” he said.

“We recognize at our agency whether it’s man-caused or nature and not a lot we can do about it, bottom line is we’re in the middle of a really bad drought and things are drier than we’ve ever seen them,” Tenney continued. “So, conditions have changed.”

But he said it’s not just the heat. There’s also the drought.

“Then add in the population of Arizona has double or more in my lifetime, which means more people that want to get out of the heat and get into our forest, which means more people shooting at exploding targets and more people dragging chains and more people blowing tires and more people throwing out a cigarette butt or leaving a campfire unattended,” Tenney continued. Add to that the “timber wars” of decades earlier when there was no forest thinning

“So fire danger has increased for many reasons,” he said.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, told legislators they should not approve this funding without also dealing with the underlying issues of the climate. That includes reducing emissions, including those coming from gasoline-powered vehicles.

She said virtually all of Arizona is in a drought condition, with more than half of it classified as extreme drought. Last summer was the hottest on record, Bahr said, and Lake Mead is at the lowest level since it was initially filled.

“But there is complete inaction by the legislature and the governor,” she said.

That provoked a kickback from several Republican legislators.

Rep. Frank Carroll of Sun City said climate change is just something that happens over the eons. Sen. David Gowan of Sierra agreed.

“We have ups and downs and you see it through our history,” he said. And Gowan derided claims that the climate is warming, noting there were stories in news magazines in the 1970s mentioning “global cooling.”

“Since you can’t get it right, we call it ‘climate change’ now,” Gowan said.

“There’s no debate among scientists,” responded Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley.

“There might be some debate among maybe some politicians,” he continued. “But the notion that we don’t know that climate change is real, that Arizona isn’t the third warmingest state in the country, that Phoenix and Tucson aren’t in the Top Five, is really scary to hear because it completely flies in the face of science.”

And Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said it would be wrong for legislators to deal only with the the fires and the after-effects and then give up.

“I understand fires in the desert are no joke,” he said.

“And I truly believe making people whole after a fire is a laudable effort,” Mendez continued. “But if that’s all we do with this special session, then this whole endeavor will be a sad joke.”

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he’s willing to consider where climate change fits in on the question of fires. But he said the causes and effects are not that simple, citing efforts by environmental groups to curtail cattle on public lands.

“Is there going to be an acknowledgment on the other side that things like grazing are a part of the answer to some of this stuff?” he asked. And Shope said that various environmental efforts that have curbed long-practiced policies of farmers, ranchers and others have simultaneously resulted in an “exponential rise” in fires.

One thing that could slow final approval when the measures go to the full House and Senate on Thursday has to do with the ability of ranchers to tap into the funds.

“It’s important to get cattle back on the land,” said Stephanie Smallhouse, a rancher and president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. But she said that can’t happen if ranchers don’t have the money to restore burned fences and reconstruct water supplies.

But Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, pointed out that there is only so much money in the package, most immediately in responding to the fires and then to protect communities from future flooding.

“This bill is to address what is happening today and stop it, immediately, and get boots on the ground,” she said. It also can help advance dollars for communities that may eventually be able to get federal grants.

“I want to be sure that this doesn’t become a slush fund,” Otondo said. So the senator said she will seek a $10 million cap on how much cash can go to landowners.

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, whose family owns a dairy farm, told colleagues they should not minimize the effects of ranching on Arizona and Arizonans.

“Everything we eat comes from the land,” she said. “And the land depends on us.”

But there are others looking for a piece of the financial pie.

Chris Wanamaker, Pinal County manager, spoke about viewing the area east of Superior. He wants funding for a rain gauge and a stream flow gauge.

“That can give the town some advance warning when floods or rain starts coming,” he told lawmakers. Wanamaker said those devices can be set to send out warnings at pre-set levels, even sending out emails and text messages.

Then there’s the question of stopping some of the potential destruction when the monsoon rains come, carrying not just water but debris and ash into urban areas.

“They can take out power lines, take out sewer lines, water lines, any other kind of infrastructure,” said Tami Ryall, grants administrator for Pinal County.

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