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Arizona helps teach national wildfire lessons

Researcher looks at AZ national forests in plan for prevention
Bighorn Fire in the Catalina Mountains near Tucson on June 26.
Bighorn Fire in the Catalina Mountains near Tucson on June 26.(Nicole / See It, Snap It, Send It)
Updated: Oct. 8, 2020 at 7:16 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Arizona has seen its share of raging wildfires. But watching entire neighborhoods burn time and time again in California this year may have you wondering - could it happen here?

“The hots are getting a lot hotter. The dries are getting a lot drier," California Governor Gavin Newsom said this week. "Just recall 2011 to 2017, where we experienced an historic drought that let 163 million trees dead in its wake.”

Because of the implications of climate change, how we treat our trees - and what’s causing them to burn - has become a political hot button. But Jason Hayes, Director of Environmental Policy for the Mackinac Center, says, there’s nothing political about keeping forests healthy.

“If we address the fire risk in the federal forests, they’re much less likely to burn and if they do, they’re a much less intense burn that’s actually good for the forest,” said Hayes.

A former forester, Hayes focused his new report with the Goldwater Institute on Arizona, in order to teach lessons wildfire prevention - that he wants the nation to follow. He studied the swath of four national forests, including Tonto, Sitgreaves, Kaibab, and Coronado. And it’s not only about protecting trees, wildlife, and property. It’s also about resources like water, much of which feeds down from the Tonto National Forest to us in Southern Arizona.

To help keep fires from reaching what’s known as the “WUI," or wildland/urban interface, where people live, Hayes advocates building what he calls resistance and resiliency. Clearing out fuels - like underbrush, dead and diseased trees, and struggling trees - then reintroducing fire to the ecosystem with controlled burns, followed by replanting. Do one before the other - and it could get out of control.

“So what you get is sort of a really ugly situation where, if something goes wrong, like we have a lighting strike, or someone tosses a cigarette or a campfire, that’s when you get these big fires that just take everything out,” said Hayes.

Lightning-sparked wildfires, like the Bighorn and Tortolita Fires, happen often. Hayes says his recommendations can make the difference between a destructive fire - and a decimating one.

State and U.S. foresters have been doing the kind of work he recommends in Arizona for a decade. Hayes says it’s time to commit to another 20 years.

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