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As Southwest burns, Interior Dep't earmarks $103M for mitigation, firefighter health

As Southwest burns, Interior Dep't earmarks $103M for mitigation, firefighter health

  • Wildland firefighters observe the Bighorn Fire at night in June 2020.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comWildland firefighters observe the Bighorn Fire at night in June 2020.

As wildfires char thousands of acres in Southern Arizona, the Interior Secretary announced millions in new spending on wildfire risk reduction, efforts to increase the "resilience of areas" threatened by wildfires, and the creation of a health and well-being program for firefighters.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced her agency will spend $103 million on wildfire mitigation efforts last week, part of the infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last November.

At least 10 wildfires are burning in Arizona, six of which are classified as large-scale fires. This includes two large blazes, that chewed through thousands of acres in Southern Arizona. 

Sparked by lightning in the Baboquivari wilderness, the Contreras Fire consumed nearly 30,000 acres of  "drought-stressed" grass and brush in largely steep and rugged terrain, about 45 miles southwest of Tucson. Further south, the Tonto Canyon Fire tore through about 9,200 acres of grass and scrub across both side of the U.S.-Mexico border just west of Nogales. 

Meanwhile, the Pipeline Fire burned more than 26,500 acres just 6 miles north of Flagstaff before firefighters were able to contain it. 

The National Interagency Fire Center has tracked nearly 32,000 wildfires across the U.S. in 2022, and said more than 3.2 million acres have burned. And, experts warn of a higher-than-average risk of wildfires throughout much of the west. Officials at the NIFC expect fire danger to decrease in Arizona as summer storms arrive, however, the risk will shift to the east, threatening Texas and parts of the Midwest. 

Haaland announced the spending while visiting the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. 

"As wildfire seasons become longer, more intense and more dangerous, President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is bringing much needed support to communities across the country to increase the resilience of lands and better support federal wildland firefighters," Haaland said. "Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can take a significant toll on their overall health and wellbeing, as well as on those who love them. Standing up a targeted interagency effort to provide trauma-informed mental health care is critical." 

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva praised the announcement, noting  that Arizona could face an "extraordinary frequent threat" from wildfires. 

“Climate change is driving the frequency and ferocities of wildfires that are ravaging our nation and threatening our communities. We cannot continue to ignore the blatant signs of climate change," Grijalva said in a statement Saturday. "As drought and extreme temperatures intensify, it is clear that catastrophic wildfires are becoming an extraordinary frequent threat, especially to Arizona."

Grijalva praised the efforts of firefighters to protect Tohono O'odham communities and the Kitt Peak observatory from the Contreras Fire. On Thursday, fire officials said the fire was about 83 percent contained and that "minimal fire activity is expected going forward," as containment lines held, and higher humidity and thunderstorms have decreased available fuel. As the fire diminishes, fire officials said they would slowly release fire crews and helicopters to "other incidents" or back to their home units. 

Fire tops Kitt Peak

Around 2 a.m. Friday morning, firefighters rushed to defend the Kitt Peak National Observatory when the blaze reached the summit and breached the main road. Driven by wind and heat, the fire raced through the terrain quickly climbing up the mountain's slopes. Firefighters were able to defend the campus, but two outbuildings at the observatory, along with a dormitory and a residence, were destroyed by the fire. 

At one point, firefighters at the observatory were cut off as the fire blazed on both sides of the road up the mountain. Observatory officials are still evaluating the instruments were damaged, although scientific facilities appear intact, officials said. 

"Scientific facilities and instrumentation appear intact, assessments of damage to instrumentation will begin once conditions allow for safe entry into the area," officials said on Sunday. 

As the fire threatened Kitt Peak, it also forced the evacuation of about 10 homes Pan Tak, a small community on the Tohono O'odham Nation about one mile south of Ajo Highway, and four miles from Kitt Peak, in the pre-dawn hours.

Fire officials said residents of Pan Tak returned home Wednesday evening. 

"Fire behavior and smoke production will diminish significantly over the next 36 hours as higher humidity settles in and wetting thunderstorms pass through," officials said. "Smoke may still be intermittently visible from well within the containment area." 

Grijalva pushed Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey on Saturday to support a declaration of a state of emergency to provide for "expanded resources to meet the current efforts and any post recovery needs for the impacted areas." He also said he would lead efforts in Congress to push "urgently needed climate change legislation to protect our communities.”

Interior plans to deal with 'hazards', protect firefighters

As part of Haaland's announcement, the Interior Department said $80.9 million will go toward "accelerating the pace and scale of fuels management work," reducing the risk of wildfires through what officials called a "strategic removal of potential wildfire hazards." The Interior Department said it plans to clear fire hazards across about 2 million acres of federal land—a 30 percent increase over the same efforts a year earlier. 

Another $19.4 million will be spent on burned area rehabilitation, helping to support "post-wildfire" landscape recovery. 

The Interior Department will also push to develop what the agency called a "wildfire risk mapping and mitigation tool," currently under development by the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. "The tool will allow stakeholders to engage in planning efforts to reduce wildfire risk by facilitating the coordination and prioritization of fuels treatments based on the highest risk areas and impacts on communities and infrastructure," Interior Department officials said. 

Another $3.1 million will be aimed toward wildfire science research under the Joint Fire Science Program. The program will support climate-related research to better understand a number of topics, including the mental health of firefighters, landscape resiliency, and the beneficial uses of prescribed fires, carbon storage, and greenhouse gas and smoke emissions. 

The agency will also focus efforts on a mental wellness program for wildland firefighters. The joint program, balanced between the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, will address mental health needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder care for firefighters—including permanent, temporary, seasonal and year-round firefighters at both agencies. This will include trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention, the Interior Department said. 

The joint program will also address "environmental hazards to minimize on-the-job exposure for wildland firefighters." 

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