AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

After two brutal years of wildfires in Arizona, the Biden administration, Sen. Mark Kelly, and Rep. Tom O’Halleran on Tuesday announced an “aggressive effort” to fight wildfires in the state and save lives. 

The decade-long strategy proposes treating more than 50 million acres of land across the West while also preparing a long-term maintenance plan. Under the strategy, the Forest Service will work alongside federal, state, and Tribal leaders to reduce the danger of devastating fires by thinning overgrown trees and using controlled burns to eliminate dead trees and plants that are easily flammable. 

“The science tells us that if we take preventative steps, if we do a little treatment, if we thin out, do a little prescribed burning, we can actually significantly reduce the risk of a fire once it starts,” US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a press conference in Phoenix.

Kelly, a Democrat, was direct about the urgency behind the effort. “Wildfires in the United States have reached a crisis level,” Kelly said. “The truth is that drought and climate change will only deepen this crisis.”

More than 1.5 million acres burned in Arizona in 2020 and 2021, driven by the ongoing drought and scorching heatwaves. 

“The mega fires that we’ve been experiencing aren’t like anything we’ve seen before,” Kelly said. “Today’s fires—they burn hotter and they burn longer and they can easily reach temperatures in the thousands of degrees. They scar the landscape and that can take years to recover and we know that they’re also deadly.”

The plan also aims to expand the firefighting workforce and includes watershed restoration efforts in Arizona, according to Vilsack. According to the Arizona Republic, the projects that will be addressed first in Arizona include: 

  • The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) in Arizona’s ponderosa pine expanse.
  • The pine expanses above the Mogollon Rim.
  • Flagstaff’s watershed and the Cragin Reservoir area.

“As a key player in Arizona’s forest and water management for over 20 years, I have seen firsthand the struggle the 4FRI initiative has long faced to properly restore our forests,” O’Halleran said during Tuesday’s announcement. “I’m confident this new plan will address the concerns of Arizona families, restore the health of our forests, and work to prevent catastrophic wildfires like those we’ve seen tear through rural Arizona for years.”

(Left to right) Sen. Mark Kelly; Andrew Sanchez Meador, NAU Ecological Restoration Institute; USDA Sec. Vilsack; USFS Chief Moore; Rep. Tom O’Halleran; Mary Mitsos, National Forest Foundation; Michiko Martin, Southwest Regional Forester; and Bruce Hallin, Director water supply, Salt River Project.
Photo courtesy Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s office.

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