The Arizona Legislature advanced bills Wednesday creating a $100 million fund to respond to a wildfire emergency after hearing dire warnings from state officials and praise from worried leaders of rural counties and cities amid a brewing fight on the role of climate change in driving blazes and drought.
The votes were nearly unanimous after a joint session of Arizona House and Senate committees that hear natural resources bills, with only one Democrat opposing the appropriation because it did not do anything to address climate change.
The Legislature is meeting in a special session called by Gov. Doug Ducey to quickly boost funding for firefighting and recovery efforts as the state is in the midst of a historic drought and fires have been ravaging the state. The House and Senate are expected to overwhelmingly approve the legislation Thursday, even as lawmakers remain split on an overall spending plan that contains a massive tax cut.
John Truett, the top fire official in state Department of Forestry and Fire Management, said firefighters have been dealing with critical fire weather for the past several weeks and that situation is only getting worse with this week’s heat wave and a growing number of lightning strikes.
Several major fires are burning in the state, and the region is so hot that some large aerial tankers can’t fly and helicopters are having trouble finding places where they can pick up water to drop on the flames, Truett said.
“Lake San Carlos is so low that we couldn’t take out of that,” Truett said. “A lot of the (water) tanks are out, and some of the ranchers with their tanks, they’re dry, and even if there is water we’re not taking those because we’re going to leave those for the cattle.”
Throughout Thursday’s four-hour hearing, Democrats brought up climate change as the driving force, but the stage was set when Forestry and Fire Management Director David Tenney declined to be drawn into that debate.
“There’s people with strong feelings on both sides of that issue and there’s even probably more than two sides,” he said after Democratic Sen. Kirsten Engel asked him to address “the elephant in the room.”
“What I can assure you is that we recognize at our agency that, whether it’s man caused or nature, not a lot we can do about it,” Tenney said. “Bottom line is we’re in the middle of a really bad drought and things are drier than we’ve ever seen them. So, conditions have changed.”
The $100 million includes $25 million this budget year to pay for 720 state prisoners to clear brush and other flammable material under direction of state forestry officials and some contract clearing operations. Ducey proposed that spending in his January budget plan. There’s also $75 million for firefighting efforts, to help affected municipalities, people and property owners recover and to prepare for flooding and other fallout from large fires so far this fire season.
One large fire that broke out early this week near the mining community of Globe brought City Manager Paul Jepson to Phoenix to testify in favor of the new spending.
“We’re in a pinch up there,” Jepson said. “Things are happening quickly, they seem to get better, they get worse. It’s dynamic. You all from the governor, House, Senate have really moved quickly to address these needs.”
Representatives from Gila and Pinal counties and from ranching and farming groups also testified, requesting quick cash for recovery efforts.
Fires have been burning with increasing frequency across Arizona in recent years as hotter temperatures and a 20-year drought combine with overgrown forests to fuel large blazes. The governor’s January budget proposal noted that state firefighting costs exceeded $39 million in the last five years while appropriations were only about $20 million.
Arizona is not the only Western state dealing with increasing costs of fighting and recovering from fires. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in April appropriating $536 million for the efforts, with over half going to removing hazardous fuels and a third going to create fire breaks.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is seeking more than $70 million for fire preparedness, response, and prevention resources, while the state Legislature is considering a $150 million appropriation for similar uses.
Both Democratic governors are pushing climate change policies that Republicans who control Arizona’s Legislature will not acknowledge. The vast majority of peer-reviewed studies, science organizations and climate scientists say the world is warming, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
“I’m not gonna lie, it was scary to hear there was a perception of a debate over whether climate change is real, and whether it’s connected to causing fires,” Democratic Rep. Aaron Lieberman said.
Republicans pushed back, with Sen. David Gowan saying that he read a story in the ’70s about global cooling, one in the ’80s about global warming, and “we call it climate change now.”
“Of course there’s climate change. That’s what happens to the Earth,” Gowan said. “Thank the Lord it happens every year. Climate change happens every decade, happens every century, millennium, we have climate change.”