Over the past decade, wildfires have affected close to 10 million acres in the region, and these fires are 10 times larger today than they were a decade ago. Thinning operations, like the recent Spencer Canyon/Mount Bigelow effort, and managing natural fires are proactive measures we can take to reduce the potential for large wildfires.

Thinning operations reduce the chance of small fires moving into the canopy, which will carry it across the landscape much faster and cause more ecological damage.

The effectiveness of thinning, however, depends on a range of factors including size of the area treated, intensity of thinning and how long ago the thinning took place.

The most effective operations are those that treat a large area and are done frequently as new growth appears.

Allowing natural fires to burn can also provide an economical approach to treating large forest areas. The Oak Fire was started June 17 by lightning in the Galiuro Mountains. The Coronado National Forest managed the fire so it would burn out old, dry brush and grasses, treating close to 14,000 acres. There are plans for more prescribed burns in Coronado National Forest and Saguaro National Park this summer and fall.

Thinning and managing natural fires are one part of the equation. Other activities aimed at reducing the chance of mega-fires are also taking place.

  • Firescape, which encompasses teams from the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, is a framework of ecologically sound, large-scale fire management across multiple land ownerships.
  • The Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center is actively removing invasive, highly flammable species like buffelgrass and cheatgrass.
  • UA Cooperative Extension’s Arizona Firewise Communities program is making headway working with communities with the goal of insuring that homes are designed, built and maintained to withstand wildfire.

Although these activities can be effective, they require significant financial resources. They are relatively small, however, in comparison to the cost of fighting fires. The Forest Service estimates the cost of firefighting in 2014 at almost $1.8 billon. To put this in perspective, this is $470 million more than is available in the Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets.

Emergency firefighting — by far the most expensive way of treating a fire problem — cuts into the dollars available for forest thinning and controlled burns — all of which improve the health and resilience of our forests.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Washington, D.C.; a bipartisan bill called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would allow federal agencies to draw on federal disaster funds when firefighting costs reach 70 percent of the 10 year average. Yet even with significant bipartisan support, the bill remains in committee and a vote is not scheduled.

Western forests, with their wildlife, recreational and ranching uses, are an essential component of our landscape and they serve as an important source of our water supply. Adequately funding firefighting and critical forest management will be necessary to ensure the survival and sustainability of our forests and seems like a wise investment to make.

Stuart E. Marsh is director of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona.