The Arizona wildfire season is hopefully peaking but hundreds of thousands of acres are burned in a year that is shaping up to be one of the worst of the past two decades.

This was supposed to be the year when aggressive fire management plans would bring beneficial results. What happened?

Delays happened. The coronavirus was a big one. Plans by federal land authorities to put firefighters in place to begin aggressively create firebreaks and eliminate brush with prescription burns took longer than usual due to concerns about keeping personnel safe from the virus while in the field. There were also delays, reportedly virus related, in authorizing contracts and agreements for fire management. One of the largest delays is with a sweeping plan for national forests in Arizona dubbed the four forests initiative. It’s a grand reforestation plan that incorporates fire prevention and firefighting among its elements. It’s also taken years to formalize with recent delays tied to obtaining stakeholder comments.

Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, who’s been pushing for a faster, more efficient project timeline, was told in a Senate hearing the Forest Service will award a master contract for the initiative this fall.

This fall doesn’t help this summer. Fire prevention won’t help after the fact.

Likewise, a fire reduction effort by the Forest Service across the West may help other states but isn’t in time to help Arizona in its early fire season.

Budget cuts, some of which have been restored, get the biggest blame for delays in wildfire reduction programs. It isn’t as though the dangers of wildfires and even megafires are unknown. Government climate scientists say the risk of huge fires is about 200 to 300 percent more than average in Arizona due to warming, dryer weather. In the northern Rockies, the risk is even higher. This problem didn’t sneak up on anyone. The treasured forests shouldn’t be the expendable pawn in annual budget tussles back in Washington or in the protracted bureaucratic process leading to a fire mitigation project. The results speak for themselves.

— Today’s News-Herald

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