PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Legislature on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a bill creating a $100 million fund to respond to a wildfire emergency as fires continue to burn across the state.
Despite the broad approval — the House vote was 56-2 and the Senate vote was 24-2 -- minority Democrats said the state needs to do more to address the root cause of the drought and resulting wildfires, which they say is climate change.
“I feel like we’re the little boy with his finger in the dike doing a tiny bit right now to stop what is going to be a huge cascade in our state,” said Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler of Phoenix. “Because we are not doing enough to address the climate crisis.”
Republicans on Wednesday pushed back on the climate change comments, and that continued Thursday. House Speaker Rusty Bowers responded by saying “I know that we would love to go beyond the scope of the bill, talking about climate change. Great climates do change,” pointing out a National Geographic story on tree ring studies that showed the current drought is not the worse in state history.
The same issues were discussed in the Senate, and one Republican said he was willing to listen. Sen. T.J. Shope said of Coolidge said other factors are making fires worse, include limits on grazing that can lower flammable materials.
“No one silver bullet is going to solve what we face,” Shope said. ”I look forward to ideas from all facets of the communities."
The Legislature was meeting in a special session called by Gov. Doug Ducey to quickly boost funding for firefighting and recovery efforts.
Two House Democrats voted against the bill, as did Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who said she remained upset that a special session wasn't called last year when many in her party opposed the governor's coronavirus restrictions.
“I certainly wish I could vote yes, but unfortunately I can't condone the misuse of a special session, knowing that last year, if there was ever a justification to be in a special session we had it and we didn't take it,” Ugenti-Rita said.
Democratic Sen. Juan Mendez of Tempe also voted no, saying the Legislature was dodging its chance to make a real effort to combat climate change.
“Fires in the desert are no joke, and I truly believe helping people to be made whole after a fire is a laudable effort,” Mendez said. “But if that's all we do with this special session than this whole endeavor is just a sad joke.”
The $100 million includes $25 million this budget year to pay for 720 state prisoners to clear brush and other flammable material under direction of state forestry officials and some contract clearing operations. Ducey proposed that spending in his January budget plan.
There’s also $75 million for firefighting efforts to help affected municipalities, people and property owners recover and prepare for flooding and other fallout from large fires so far this fire season. The legislation includes funding for corrections crews for the next two years that adds another $70 million in spending.
Several large fires are burning across the state, with one near the mining town of Globe already among the top 10 ever seen in the state. As of Thursday morning, the blaze in the mountains 90 miles (144 kilometers) southeast of Phoenix has consumed 268 square miles (694 square kilometers) of brush and timber. Several communities remain under evacuation orders.
John Truett, the top fire official in state Department of Forestry and Fire Management, on Wednesday said firefighters have been dealing with critical fire weather for the past several weeks and that situation is only getting worse with this week’s heat wave and a growing number of lightning strikes.
The heat wave over the region is so bad that some large aerial tankers can’t fly and helicopters are having trouble finding places where they can pick up water to drop on the flames, Truett said.
Arizona is not the only Western state dealing with increasing costs of fighting and recovering from fires. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in April appropriating $536 million for the efforts, with over half going to removing hazardous fuels and a third going to create fire breaks.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is seeking more than $70 million for fire preparedness, response and prevention resources, while the state Legislature is considering a $150 million appropriation for similar uses.