PHOENIX – Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday called a special session of the state Legislature to boost wildfire funding as two large wildfires continue to burn in south-central Arizona.
The Republican governor wants the Legislature to approve extra money to ensure that firefighters have the resources they need across the drought-ravaged state and to address the problems the fires will trigger once they are out.
“Now it's clear that we’ve got a lot more work to do and the response will not end even when these fires are out,” Ducey said. “When this year’s monsoon rains come, these burned areas are prone to landslides, mudslides and flooding, which pose another threat to this community."
Arizona is not alone in reporting large wildfires this year, as much of the U.S. Southwest is deep into a prolonged drought. The National Interagency Fire Center on Thursday reported that so far this year, 23 large fires have burned across nearly 400 square miles (1,036 square kilometers) of wildlands in nine states. New large fires were reported Wednesday in California, Colorado, Michigan and Utah.
The largest fires currently burning are in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, states hit exceptionally hard by the drought.
About 1,600 firefighters are battling the two large Arizona fires that broke out early this month and have burned at least 245 square miles (636 square kilometers) of grass, chaparral and pinyon pine forest in rugged terrain. The fires are burning west of Superior, Globe, Miami and other mining towns about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Phoenix.
The special session is expected to be held next week. The governor did not announce how much money he will request, besides mentioning it will be in the millions.
Ducey made the announcement as he visited south-central Arizona after traveling with House Speaker Rusty Bowers and another lawmaker to the area where crews supported by aircraft are working to keep the fires out of Globe and several other communities in Gila and Pinal counties.
Bowers lost his longtime family retreat home in the blaze on Monday, which was among five structures that were destroyed in one of the fires burning near Globe and Miami. He lives in Mesa, but he said his grandmother was a milkmaid in Globe when she met his grandfather and his family has deep roots in the community.
"The governor mentioned our loss. But my wife and I, when we look at the friends and the folks that have tried to help us, that are helping you, this is the character of Globe-Miami right here, and beyond over those hills, and we’re grateful," Bowers said at a midday news conference. “We’re grateful for good neighbors.”
Bowers talked to the governor Monday and suggested the special session, saying the state's wildfire funds were depleted and that he was worried about flooding and mudslides to come.
“With what's happened up on the mountain, it’s gonna be a bad, bad summer if we get a heavy monsoon, which we need,” Bowers said Thursday. “And so, we’re here to help. We want to make sure the resources (are there) and work with your emergency management folks to get prepared, to get stationed, to get pre-positioned so that we can really help you in this flooding season that’s going to come up.”
Ducey rode on an Arizona National Guard Black Hawk helicopter for an aerial tour of the two fires, then was briefed by fire officials and visited a Red Cross shelter for evacuees before holding a news conference.
Whether Ducey actually needed to call a special session is doubtful. The Legislature remains in session as lawmakers try to get enough votes to pass a $12.8 billion budget and massive tax cuts Republican legislative leaders negotiated with Ducey. At least two GOP lawmakers and all Democrats oppose the tax cuts, leading to weeks of no movement on the budget.
Ducey said a special session will help focus lawmakers on a single subject that has bipartisan support even as they are deadlocked on the budget.
“It’s a way to just stop all the other noise that is necessary in any legislative session, to get big things done and to focus on the fire and the people of Gila County,” Ducey said.
The Legislature faces a June 30 deadline to pass a budget for the 2022 fiscal year that begins July 1.
The governor’s January budget proposal noted that the state has consistently exceeded the $4 million annual appropriation to the state Fire Suppression Fund over the past several years and sought to increase that annual amount by $2.4 million in the coming budget year. The proposal noted that in the previous five budget years firefighting costs exceeded $39 million while appropriations were only about $20 million.
The governor also sought to increase the amount of cash put into an emergency fund he controls and often uses to make up the difference in actual firefighting expenses.
Depending on where fires burn in the state, firefighting efforts may be paid for with either state or federal funding.
Ducey on Wednesday issued an emergency declaration for the two current large wildfires. The declaration will make up to $400,000 available for response efforts.
Crews increased the containment of one called the Telegraph fire burning near Superior and Miami to 40% of its perimeter as of Thursday. Containment of the so-called Mescal fire southeast of Globe was at 36% as of Thursday morning.
The Mescal fire has entered a mop-up stage. But residents shouldn’t become complacent because embers could be blown over containment lines and start spot fires, fire management team spokesman David Shell said. If that happens, "we’re off to the races again,” he said,
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed.