The wildfires that have destroyed thousands of acres in Arizona and New Mexico may not have been so catastrophic if federal agencies had worked more closely with local and state governments to take preventive steps, according to one Arizona county official. However, a cohesive strategy is in the works that officials say will coordinate wildland fire management efforts by agencies on all levels of government.

The Monument Fire in southeast Arizona and the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico had destroyed nearly 600,000 acres as of late June. The damage could have been less severe if the Ponderosa Pine forests had been thinned and landscaped properly, says Graham County, Ariz., board supervisor Mark Herrington.

Anti-logging laws passed in recent years have led to far denser growth in the forests, Herrington says, causing the fires to leap into the canopy and completely destroy the forests. Herrington and other Arizona officials have been working with federal agencies on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), which would control landscaping in four national forests in northern Arizona. It is the first such collaboration between federal, state and local officials in 25 years, Herrington says. “You let your yard go for 25 years and see how it looks,” he says.

A cohesive wildland fire management strategy now in its second phase of development would make collaborative efforts like 4FRI the norm in wildland fire management. The strategy, a joint U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior project developed under the guidance of the Wildland Fire Executive Council (WFEC), is beginning to implement regional plans, says Ryan Yates, associate legislative director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties and a member of WFEC.

Yates says that effective wildland fire plans must address everything from the initial attack to the public health and public safety response. “This cohesive strategy [for] all levels of government [and] multiple federal agencies is ultimately going to be a more effective tool for protecting resources,” Yates says.

On report

In April, Congress approved two reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior that outline the comprehensive wildland fire management strategy. The reports — “A National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy” and “The Federal Land Assistance, Management And Enhancement Act Of 2009 Report to Congress” — are available at www.forestsandrangelands.gov.