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Getting Ready: Catastrophic Wildfire in the American West ~ An Interview with Jeff Whitney

Flagstaff’s decision to tax itself is a great example of what we must all do to protect our communities – take responsibility for the health of our forests and watersheds. Whether or not communities decide to tax themselves, it will take a similar initiative to get the job done.

The wildfire season forecast for the American West is grim. Our water supply, health and the lands we love are again threatened by the results of a rapidly warming West.

Nowhere is the outlook more sobering than in Arizona where wildfire experts are comparing this year to the 2011 fire season when over 1,000,000 acres burned.

We asked Jeff Whitney, Arizona State Forester, what communities are doing to prepare for the upcoming wildfires that will inevitably impact your water supply and health, now and 20 years from now?


What are the three ingredients that would increase resiliency in the Salt and Verde watersheds?

We are working actively along with 30 stakeholders to try to expedite the implementation of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. One of those partners that we’re actively working with quite closely is Salt River Project. They’ve been in Arizona for over 100 years managing the Federal Bureau of Reclamation waterworks that supplies water to two-thirds of the Phoenix metropolitan area

The quickest and easiest frame would be to put this resiliency work  under the umbrella of the Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy. It’s a national initiative, all levels of jurisdictions, and it’s about resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities and safe and effective response to fire. The reality is that our fire season is far longer than it was 40 years ago. It’s probably 75 days longer now than it was when I started in wildland fire in the early 1970s.

We’ve got an extreme buildup of hazardous fuels in the forest. At the same time, we have a growing number of people living in to the wildland-urban interface.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative, otherwise known as 4FRI is a huge opportunity. The challenge is we just don’t have the industry that we require at this point that provides the supply chain of harvesters, haulers and processors of the material coming out of the woods so that we can help underwrite the expense of landscape restoration and watershed protection and enhancement.

The Salt River Project, Phoenix and other Maricopa County cities are doing a commendable job – one that we point to all the time as models for watershed restoration investment. What else would you like to see them do?

Public awareness. We’ve got a very strong partnership between the Federal, state and local governments and the Salt River Project. But I think at this point, the biggest thing that the metropolitan communities can do would be to continue to focus on conservation and landscape  and watershed restoration.

In light of Santa Rosa fires last fall, have you identified other Arizona communities at high risk and what are these communities doing to become safer and more resilient?

We’ve just updated our communities-at-risk list. We’ve got well over 400 communities in the state and they occur at all elevations. So, it’s anything from Upper Sonoran Desert grasslands, chaparral, interior Mediterranean chaparral, pinyon-juniper, ponderosa pine, and mixed conifer. And then down in the southeastern part of the state around the Sky Islands, we’ve got a shortgrass steppe, which is a grassland community. And so, we’ve got different issues in different communities, but we are really continuing to reinforce the prevention and the fuels mitigation messaging with our communities across the state.

Flagstaff made such a great start protecting their water supply with the $10 million bond measure. Do you see other Arizona communities doing something similar or do you see the possibility of a statewide bond measure for funding forest resiliency happening anytime soon?

Flagstaff is a remarkable model. Last month, I was in Denver at a Western Governors’ working landscape workshop and the Forest Service the city and I did a joint presentation. It was a paired presentation on a panel with Denver and some of the folks working on their issues around Denver. There are a lot of opportunities and models out there.

I would submit to you that the scenario in Flagstaff is a unique one. The Schultz fire in 2010 had a significant impact not only to their water supply coming out of the Inner Basin in the San Francisco Peaks but also on the surrounding surface water system.

Flagstaff’s decision to tax itself is a great example of what we must all do to protect our communities-take responsibility for the health of our forests and watersheds. Whether or not communities decide to tax themselves it will take similar initiative to get the job done. It’s something that we all have to decide is important.

The Phoenix basin relies in part on groundwater but about half of their surface water is from the Salt and the Verde. Have there been conversations around looking at bigger sources of funding for forest and watershed restoration?

There are a tremendous number of challenges on the fiscal resources at all levels of government at this point. It’s going to require creative solutions that involve all concerned. The city of Phoenix has done quite a bit of remarkable work over the last five years. They’re funding some things. We’re working quite well with the Nature Conservancy, Salt River Project, and a number of other nongovernmental organizations. But in terms of what government can do, we’re working on biomass and encouraging the development of wood products industries. Industry is the key. It’s the only way that we are going to be able to offset the cost of forest and watershed restoration. It’s the only way that we are going to be able to approach the pace and scale of work that needs to be done in order to make a significant impact.

As you think ahead, say 20 years from now, what are the three things you want have in place for protecting the Salt and the Verde and other watersheds that provide surface or groundwater recharge for Arizona communities?

I think it would be a strengthened conservation effort. Although we’ve been at that for quite some time in Arizona, we can always do better. Resilient landscapes, having the opportunity to have a vibrant economic engine in the state to take that biomass off of the landscape regardless of ownership, whether it’s state, unincorporated, private or federal, and find ways to generate income in depressed rural economic situations, and to increase the revenue while underwriting the burden on the taxpayer.

Historically, one major hurdle to economically viable biomass production has been that the Forest Service’s stewardship contracts couldn’t be longer than 10 years. Now that there’s 20-year-stewardship contracting, are you hearing different conversations from the companies that keep talking about building these facilities?

It’s one of those obvious things – it’s quite expensive. The heavy load that we’re carrying in Arizona today is trying to restore lost industrial capacity in forest management for product manufacturing. And so for any investor, they’re going to have to come up with a business plan. And if they’re going to go out and look for venture capital, their business model, they’ve got to be able to demonstrate that they’ve got the ability to amortize that investment over a period of time to pay off the high expense of developing a wood industry campus of whatever format it may take.

It could be $50 million or, in some of the examples out there and the opportunities that we’re all exploring today, it could be upwards of $300 million. It makes perfect sense that there’s a supply and a demand. And you want to make sure that the supply is available and that’s why the 20-year supply was such a critical aspect.

Are transportation costs still the biggest challenge with these proposed biomass facilities?

The transportation cost is a huge cost sink and we know that the transportation system we have in Arizona is actually relatively well-suited to moving material around. But the farther you at the haul it, and it’s heavy coming out of the woods because it’s still got some pretty good moisture content in it, the haul distances are a significant consideration and a contribution to the bottom line. So ideally, what you’d want would be to have those industrial facilities proximal to the available material.

Closing thoughts?

I really appreciate the work that you all have been doing and I’m looking forward to working with Carpe Diem West going forward. We’ve got an awful lot of information available that I think you and your readership would be interested in. We’re continuing to work hard with all of our cooperators, the counties, communities, Salt River Project, Nature Conservancy, a number of NGOs and environmental organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity.

Jeff Whitney is the Arizona State Forester, Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. Jeff’s 36-year career spans the federal government in both natural resources and emergency response.  He previously as Executive Director for Fire Program Analysis in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service. He began his career in 1972 as a seasonal firefighter, serving five seasons with hotshot crews and three seasons as a heavy engine captain.  He continues to serve in incident response, primarily in operations and as an Incident Commander.  He is a qualified National Area Commander.

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May, 2018

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