Today the 8,400 acres that burned in Central Arizona's Yarnell Hill fire in which 19 firefighters died look like a moonscape. Gone are chaparral, scrub oak, evergreen trees and shrubs that adorned that landscape. In their place are caked ash and soot.
While these scenes are common in Arizona and the West with the growth of large, destructive wildfires, just as common has been the lack of progress in preventing more fires due to federal budget pressures, political polarization and gridlock.
Yet while there was plenty of disagreement over fire policy at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing Thursday, the firefighter deaths apparently produced common ground, particularly on fighting proposed Obama administration budget cuts for fuel-clearing projects.
Several House Republicans, including Rep. Paul Gosar, whose district includes the Yarnell area, joined Democrats including Tucson Rep. Raúl Grijalva in blasting proposed cuts approaching 40 percent for fiscal year 2013-14 from the previous fiscal year.
Grijalva said in a later interview that if anything can unite the West, "it's about resources. … If the West gets together about this, I think we can be effective."
An Interior Department official, James Douglas, testified that the cuts have been forced by "hard choices" over the federal budget.
The various factions also show unity over smaller fire-prevention efforts such as the Good Neighbor Authority program, in which federal agencies work with state forestry agencies to conduct forest- restoration work.
There's also bipartisan support for collaborative "stewardship contracting," in which the feds work with private contractors, local government officials and environmentalists to restore forests.
But no consensus exists over Gosar's proposed legislation to streamline federal environmental rules to speed thinning of national forests.
As for climate change, which a growing number of scientists have linked to wildfires, the two parties remain miles apart. Grijalva told the subcommittee that "We can't ignore climate change," given that recent warming trends have extended the fire season by two months.
But Republican Rob Bishop of Utah, the subcommittee chair, told the group, "We can't control the weather or sparks from lightning, but we can control the fuel loads. We need to thin our forest, put people back to work, sustain our local economies and protect our environment. If we don't do it, Mother Nature will."
Huge areas at risk
Together, Arizona and New Mexico have 9.52 million acres of national forest posing high or very high wildfire risk, the Forest Service said.
Nationally, between 65 million and 82 million acres of national forests face a high fire risk, testified James Hubbard, the Forest Service's deputy chief of state and private forestry. Last year, more than 9.3 million acres burned nationwide, he testified. Fourteen fires burned at least 100,000 acres, and 51 fires exceeded 40,000 acres.
In Arizona last year, more than 50,000 acres burned in four fires, Gosar testified, and more than 900 fires charred nearly 6,000 square miles in all Western states.
Over a 10-year period in the 2000s, the Forest Service removed or treated about 27.6 million acres of forests to reduce fire risks, even as about one-third of all homes in the continental U.S. lie within the Wildland Urban Interface, where people live close to undeveloped forest, he testified.
But in part because more money must be spent on fire suppression, there's less for prevention, Hubbard and Interior's Douglas testified.
Later, Bishop said in an interview that the federal Office of Management and Budget, the federal budget agency, has "whacked" the nation's fire prevention resources. At the hearing, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, blasted federal budget officials as "trolls" who don't know anything about the West.
Bishop also noted that the Agriculture Department wants to spend $40 million on land-buying for more national forests, and that Forest Service officials testified that legal restrictions make it impossible to transfer that money to fire prevention or suppression. He said Forest Service officials have told him that they're frustrated at their lack of resources.
But Grijalva saw a policy shift among typically budget-conscious Republicans on the fire issue.
"It's kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "Republicans insist the budget be lowered, they put in caps on the budget that continue to decrease each year … and suddenly they point the finger that there is nothing being done."
Thinning just one step
In his testimony, Republican Gosar said that spending more on thinning forests isn't enough.
"We must work smarter. We must shift to a proactive management of lands or we're going to go bankrupt," he said. "What Arizonans want right now, they want to see something done. I can't look at these 19 families in my district any other way."
His bill has measures that Grijalva has pushed, including collaborative fire restoration contracting and good-neighbor policies. But it also would authorize livestock grazing and timber harvesting on federal lands to reduce fuel buildup.
The bill would require that environmental reviews of wildfire prevention projects on public lands be finished in 60 to 90 days and would exempt from reviews all fuel-clearing projects within 500 feet of utility lines, campgrounds, roadsides or schools.
Gosar said that the federal National Environmental Policy Act, which requires these reviews, has become "the third rail" in natural resources policy - politically too hot to touch, and he and other Republicans blasted environmentalist lawsuits as a cause of delays in fuel thinning.
"Nearly every expert in the field will tell you we have to cut red tape if we are going to seriously address our forest health situation," he said. "Nearly everyone agrees, we must streamline the review process, improve coordination with local officials on the ground, eliminate duplication and set firm time frames to bring more accountability."
But he proposed similar legislation last year without success, and the nonprofit website GovTrack now gives it a 2 percent chance of being enacted, compared to 3 percent of all introduced bills that have been enacted since 2011.
Kieran Suckling, director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said Gosar's comments are contradicted by a 2010 Congressional Government Accountability Office report. From 2006 to 2008, only 2 percent of 1,191 Forest Service decisions authorizing fuel reduction were litigated, with 18 percent appealed, the report said.
"Virtually all of that Yarnell Fire was on private land, and they are holding a hearing about logging public lands," Suckling said. "Why aren't they talking about why our private lands are messed up and why we need to better manage that?"
"Nearly every expert in the field will tell you we have to cut red tape if we are going to seriously address our forest health situation. Nearly everyone agrees, we must streamline the review process, improve coordination with local officials on the ground, eliminate duplication, and set firm time frames to bring more accountability."
Rep. Paul Gosar
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.