With several fires still burning in the state, Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, came out to Arizona to survey the wildfires plaguing our state… Arizona Highways caught up with Tidwell over the phone to talk about his recent trip.
You’ve had a chance to survey the area. How does it look? What are your thoughts?
I’ve been out now twice to fires in Arizona over last couple of weeks. What I saw from my visits was that we’re dealing with some of the most severe fire weather. As I flew over these fires, one thing I did see was that there were areas where we had a very high intensity burn, while other areas were moderately burned or experience a light burn. So, I am optimistic since it had burned in a mosaic pattern. But as we begin to move forward and we start to contain these fires, there needs to be a shift in focus in terms of the emergency rehabilitation of these areas.
With five active wildfires (at the time of this interview), what policies do you think the state should employ to ensure these fires are dealt with?
One of the things that we’ve been working on with our state partners across the country is encouraging private land owners to address hazardous fuels on their property by reducing any brush and tall grass. Also, with any new construction or renovations, we’re asking folks to follow our Firewise building practices, so using metal roofs or composite shingle, which are less likely to catch on fire. Also to be careful with fire, whatever it is — whether it’s a campfire or activities around the home. And be aware of severe fire weather. Last weekend, conditions were so dry at the Monument Fire that when bulldozers were constructing their fire line, they had to have fire fighter crews on hand to put out the small fires that were ignited every time the bulldozer hit a rock. I can’t stress enough how careful people need to be on their own property or on National Forest lands and understand how dry things are and be careful with ignition sources.
What lessons did you take away from your trip to the area?
First,our interagencies are doing a great job. These various federal, state, local and tribal governments are working together in a way that’s an example of government at its best. I was also pleased to see that the hazardous fuel reduction projects in Alpine and Greer made a significant difference. When the fire burning in those communities hit those treated areas, the fire dropped out of the trees and onto the ground where firefighters were able to extinguish them. Those treatments basically saved hundreds of homes.
Explain the treatments.
Treatments include thinning the trees and brush around communities, because when you have a closed canopy where the tree tops are touching, and a fire gets up there, it’s easy for the fire to stay in the crown of the trees because it has a continuous fuel supply. By thinning out the forest, the fire can’t go from tree to tree, instead it drops to ground.
How have folks living in the area dealt with the situation on the ground?
I’m very complimentary to the people who live in these communities that have had to deal with these fires over weeks. I also want to express my appreciation to those folks that had to be evacuated. It’s a difficult decision, but it’s essential that people go. When people do not leave, it puts our emergency responders in a tough situation. They can’t focus on suppressing the fire, because they’re focused on rescue. I know it’s difficult to leave your home and your property, but when the sheriff issues the order, people need to leave. I was so impressed with the people in Arizona because it looked to me like everybody had left and I appreciate that. I also appreciate how engaged people were — they wanted to be involved in meetings — and just how generous and supportive they are to our firefighters. I am really please and impressed.
What can Arizonans do to prevent another Wallow Fire?
I want to ask for their support of the ongoing forest restoration work with the White Mountain Stewardship Contract… In addition, we have a new initiative, the Four Forest Initiative, which focuses on the restoration of larger landscape areas in Arizona. I want to ask folks to be engaged in this effort and to make sure they get their questions answered — and ideally be supportive, that’s how we’ll prevent fires like this… We’ll continue to have large fires, but in the future, by doing more restoration work, we will not only reduce the threat to communities, but we can also reduce the intensity of the fire.
Are authorities getting closer to make any arrests in the Wallow Fire?
It’s still under investigation. The U.S. Attorney will determine when that information is released. But we do know that the investigations are ongoing…
I read that Senator John McCain was told by a Forest Service Official that illegal immigrants started some of the fires. Is that true?
It’s under investigation. Our investigators can determine where a fire starts and how it was started, but it’s still under investigation.
Why was it important for you to come out to Arizona to survey the damage?
It was important for a couple reasons: I wanted to personally speak with area commanders and make sure they have everything they need, and to see if there is anything we can do to provide additional support. Also, I wanted to see how well these hazardous fuel treatment projects worked, and I wanted to touch base with community leaders — to talk to them and express my appreciation for their support and all the work they’ve been doing, along with the city and county fire departments.
When a fire isn’t arson, what kind of consequences could a person face?
Every situation is different. Depending on what the investigations shows, it’s worked out with U.S. Attorney’s Office.