As large wildfires become a reality throughout the west, the road ahead is steep and rocky in Flagstaff, as illustrated by the past week the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project faced.
Wildland Fire Management officials went before the Flagstaff City Council on Tuesday and said the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project’s $10 million bond would be empty by the end of December 2020. With a third of the project incomplete, Paul Summerfelt, Wildland Fire Management officer, said they would need $8.5 million to compete the final stage of the project at Mormon Mountain near Flagstaff’s Lake Mary Watershed. The number nearly doubles the necessary amount ($4.8 million) shared in a previous city council report in 2018.
And on Friday, a day after the likely cause of the Museum Fire was released, city and U.S. Forest Service officials allowed state and local media behind the forest closure for the Museum Fire scar.
Despite all the project’s attention, Summerfelt has doubled down on his support of his work, saying the only thing he would have changed would have been “starting sooner.”
“If folks walk away from this thinking that we shouldn’t do anything, then we have truly buried our heads in the sand, and are going to get severely burned,” Summerfelt said.
Joe Shannon, director of Sierra Club Flagstaff, felt the whole process needs more transparency for the public whose money will be used on the project. Shannon said he didn't like that the initial $10 million bond asked for money without a plan for how the money was going to be spent.
“If they’re going to ask for more money, they have to do a better job of being transparent,” Shannon said.
The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project and parts of Summerfelt’s Wildland Fire Management division were funded by the project’s $10 million bond, passed in 2012 for the purpose of forest thinning and restoration in areas with extreme fire danger for Flagstaff watersheds.
Shannon said he was having trouble grasping the cause of the Museum Fire after so many rumors were spread around. Going forward, he hoped for more clear descriptions of FWPP's plans and difficulties in order to be accountable to how the agency is using taxpayer money.
“The science [behind forest restoration] is not new; it’s just so difficult to fix,” Shannon said. “I think they need to confess those sorts of things, which is hard to do when you’re asking for millions of dollars.”
Within the burn scar, ash and dirt are mixed across the forest floor near recreation trails in the Dry Lake Hills.
Throughout the 1,961 acres impacted by the Museum Fire, protected Mexican Spotted Owl habitats were also likely impacted, although no certain number has been found.
Puffs of the mixed soil and sediment catch in the air as forest and fire officials tread among the burned trunks of the ponderosa pine. Since the fire, dead and brown pine needles have dropped from their branches and scatter beneath the canopy. The steep and rocky terrain now has holes left where the flames burned out stumps and roots below the rocky topsoil.
The silence within the fire scar is a reminder of what isn't there: the brown trees, green needles, grasses and northern Arizona wildlife.
The fire that burned through this area was likely caused by an excavator striking a rock while gathering downed trees. The spark stayed warm beneath the surface and eventually turned into a wildfire 14 hours after an Oregon-based thinning company stopped working on Saturday, July 20, according to a Southwestern Region fire investigation. The U.S. Forest Service will absorb fire suppression costs, which are currently estimated at around $9 million.
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Now, thousands of sandbags sit and wait for a post-fire flooding threat that is expected beneath the Spruce Avenue Watershed in the Mount Elden Estates, Grandview, Linda Vista and Sunnyside neighborhoods after the Museum Fire.
The first phase of the project included 642 acres of forest thinning at the base of the Dry Lake Hills and Mount Elden, and has been completed. The project initially stalled after the first logging company under Terry Hatmaker defaulted on the first bid of the project.
Now the second phase of the project has stalled again after the Museum Fire, with steep slope logging and contract work expected to begin again soon. The nearly 500-acre helicopter logging in Phase Two was 95 percent complete at the time of the fire, but at a much higher price than initially expected. The remaining 400 acres of steep slope thinning is only 45% complete, with two more contracts of more acres from Dry Lake Hills and Schultz Tank to be offered for bids in the fall, according to Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project operations summaries.
With the steeper costs in the books throughout the second phase, the future of the third phase is now called into question as funds run out next year. The third phase includes forest thinning at Mormon Mountain to protect the Lake Mary watershed, where ash and debris after catastrophic wildfire could threaten Flagstaff’s drinking water.
The total project has completed over 5,500 acres of cutting, and 3,500 acres of pile and broadcast burning.
The city first announced it would not have enough to finish the project in 2018. The report at the time detailed how the project was underfunded by $4.5 million, saying that inflation, unforeseen thinning methods, low value timber and unforeseen costs in 2012 led to their lack of funds.
The current $8.5 million number is alleged to be more realistic, citing past projects as an example of realistic costs, Summerfelt said at the council meeting.
And while the city is hoping to find other grants or partners to pay for parts of the $8.5 million, more cities are engaging in similar forest thinning work in the state.
"There are more players in the pool," Summerfelt said to the Arizona Daily Sun. "Available grants have declined over the last many years. There's just less opportunity."
At the meeting, most councilmembers seemed interested in securing funding for both Wildland Fire Management and the project using methods like rate hikes and were open to pursuing another bond.
City staff is looking into finding funds through rates based on water consumption or meter size, while the council rejected having a flat fee for all commercial and residential units. While still in the early stages, city staff explained the water consumption and meter size fee systems would be conceptually based upon use, and likely impact high water users the most.
Councilmember Jim McCarthy suggested a solution that incorporated a merging of two fees to reach the amount needed: two-thirds of the fee based on water consumption and one-third of the fee based on size of your meter. Many councilmembers thought McCarthy’s suggestion was a reasonable direction for their discussion to head, and also preliminarily supported a bond on the 2020 ballot.
Mayor Coral Evans said she thought bringing the discussion into their larger water rates discussion would be most appropriate.
Whatever choice becomes their main focus, Shannon said he doesn't expect it will be easy.
"We gotta do something," Shannon said. "We're sympathetic to the problem. We’re all in it together, but it's gonna be a tough one to fix."