As northern Arizona’s forests dry and temperatures rise, all levels of fire management and science are reading the signs of heating global temperatures locally and trying to change with the climbing temperatures.
Environmental experts from around Arizona traveled to Flagstaff on Friday and Saturday for Northern Arizona University’s Climate Summit 2020. The two-day conference included a hip-hop performance by activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, documentary viewings, and panel discussion on topics like drought, wildfire, climate education, and both rural and urban impacts. In their panel on wildfire, four current leaders from around the state, and one from California, came to talk about the way fire response and study is changing.
Pete Fule, a forest ecologist at NAU’s school of forestry, started off his time on the wildfire panel saying the hottest five years have been the last five years, according to National Weather Service data.
“You can just keep on saying that, because it will probably be true next year and the following year and so on,” Fule said.
As Flagstaff’s temperatures have increased, years of federal suppression of forest fires have caused increasingly dry fuels on the forest floor to be quick to light, Fule said. And as fire seasons last longer, fires will become larger and more extreme.
Fule said the city’s environment will change. He believes there are two cities that can be used as a comparison: Prescott and Gallup, N.M. Fule hopes that in the next 10 to 20 years Flagstaff will feel like Gallup, whose mean annual temperature is 48.7 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to Flagstaff’s 46.3 degrees. But he acknowledges that Prescott, with a mean of 54.8 degrees, is also an option.
“Prescott is a nice place, but it does not have the forest ecosystem that we have here in Flagstaff,” Fule said. “And since this is one of the places that are still in high elevation, just imagine what Tucson and Phoenix will be like.”
Numbers of fires and the cost of suppression are both going up, and while the quantity of fires isn't increasing much, the size of the fires is, according to Aaron Green, assistant state forester with the Department of Forest and Fire Management.
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“Where once a fire here on the Coconino National Forest, a large fire, would be 1,000 or 5,000 acres, now large fires are measured in hundreds of thousands of acres,” Green said.
In California, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to shut off power lines to ensure their aging infrastructure does not spark a wildfire. PG&E has said their infrastructure likely sparked the Camp Fire in 2017 that killed 85 people and destroyed close to 14,000 homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The company is still discussing paying billions in damages for other fires that may have been caused by their infrastructure.
Oscar Chavez, from Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services in California, described the challenges his county has had to face when supporting people who may have their power shut off, speak a different language or not have access to the internet.
Just weeks ago, Sonoma County had to face the Kincade Fire that burned over 77,758 acres, destroyed 374 structures and damaged another 60.
Chavez described having to innovate their messages to reach both primary Spanish speakers and undocumented migrant populations. Where the federal government could not allocate money or support to undocumented migrants, non-profits and philanthropists provided help to fill the need, Chavez said.
“At the time, there were a lot of concerns around raids,” Chavez said. “Many individuals did not want to come into the shelters to seek assistance, and that further complicated our ability to help individuals.”
Chavez explained Pacific Gas & Electric's decision to shut off the power grid in areas of high fire danger has left impacts on people with a lower income. The utility decided to shut off power avoid wildfire liability in case the state's warm Santa Ana winds knock trees into power lines, causing sparks.
“For a lot of our low-income and vulnerable populations, we’re living in a very slow moving disaster,” Chavez said. “Things like fire create an immediate disaster that further traumatizes people in our communities, so we have to really have to think about where are the support and structures in place to support vulnerable populations dealing with trauma.”