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Coconino Voices: Northern Arizona to benefit from increased wildfire mitigation, better roads thanks to infrastructure law

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Mark Kelly Visits Flagstaff

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly accepts a sample of coffee from Marina Vazquez while dining on a quesadilla at the Market of Dreams in Flagstaff in this May file photo.

Within my first few months in the Senate, I traveled to the Flagstaff region to see for myself how wildfires are impacting our forest communities.

I met with forest ecologists at Northern Arizona University and listened to local elected officials and business owners about their experiences with fire and flooding. We discussed that while fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem, climate change, drought, and poor forest management have made our forests more prone to extreme wildfire activity, impacting northern Arizona communities.

The wildfires we’re experiencing in the 21st century burn hotter, longer, and are more destructive than anything we’ve seen before. In 2021 alone, over 550,000 acres burned in Arizona. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that about 80 percent of our national forest lands are high-risk for the types of megafires that ripped through communities like Heber and Whiteriver in 2002 who still haven’t fully recovered. Even after our brave firefighters extinguish these fires, homeowners face years of erosion and flood damage just like the Museum fire flooding this summer and the Schultz fire before that.

I took these conversations with me back to Washington, where my colleagues and I – 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats – got to work drafting the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was just signed into law. Not only is this bill going to put Arizonans to work upgrading and modernizing our infrastructure, it will increase wildland firefighter pay and improve the way we prevent, fight, and recover from wildfires.

When we were working on the specifics of the infrastructure bill, the 22 of us split up into groups focused on different issues. Knowing Arizona’s priorities, I worked hard to shape how this legislation tackled wildfires. The result is a bill that will improve and expand forest management in the west, including hazardous fuels projects to reduce severe fire risk in the interface between our cities and towns and wildland, and invest in mechanical thinning projects that go deep into the forest landscape to restore forests to their natural, fire-adapted state. That includes projects like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, the Forest Service’s plan for treating more than 2 million acres of forest land in Arizona. While I continue to press the Forest Service for solutions following their cancellation of the contract solicitation for the next phase of 4FRI, we made sure to include funding that will finally accelerate the project to reduce fire risk in Arizona.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill also offers funding for communities like Flagstaff to execute Community Wildfire Protection Plans, promotes Firewise standards to protect homes, and supports burn area recovery and watershed protection projects. And as we have seen in recent months, these projects are desperately needed in places like the Museum burn scar, which I was able to recently help secure mitigation funding for through the Forest Service.

Finally, the bill includes the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act, which I introduced with Senator Mitt Romney from Utah. This Act establishes a commission that will give state and local leaders a say over how the federal government can better prevent, combat, and recover from wildfires.

Even with increased funding, we just can’t keep with the same approach and expect different results. Northern Arizona deserves a better, smarter approach to wildfires. The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act represents a big step towards the natural infrastructure initiative that folks on the ground in northern Arizona told me are necessary to protect communities.

Of course, this infrastructure bill will have an impact in northern Arizona beyond improving our response to wildfires: enhanced safety on rural roads, upgraded water infrastructure, and expanded high-speed internet access in rural communities and small towns are some of the results you can expect.

My experience in the Navy and at NASA taught me how to work together with a team to accomplish a mission. That’s what I did with this infrastructure bill, working with Republicans and Democrats to deliver real results for northern Arizona. And that is what I will continue to do in the United State Senate.

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