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Flagstaff Museum Fire Takes Center Stage at the 2019 AMC Environmental Summit

Environmental & Regulatory Policy Advisor
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by Amanda A. Reeve

Consuming the forest in a red blaze just about a mile north of downtown Flagstaff, the Museum Fire Wildfire had many Arizonans on edge, especially fire management officials.  Flagstaff is a popular destination year-round, and especially so in late July for Arizonans looking for respite from the warmer temperatures of the State’s lower elevation areas.  In fact, doing just that – escaping the heat of Phoenix – the Arizona Manufacturers Council (“AMC”) 2019 Environmental and Sustainability Summit (“Summit”) presented by Snell & Wilmer was being held at the Northern Arizona University High Country Conference Center while the Museum Fire was devouring the forest a short distance away.  The events that unfolded in conjunction with the unfortunate occurrence of the Museum Fire elevated the importance and relevance of many issues of focus on the program and the speakers presenting at the Summit from Wednesday, July 24th through Friday, July 26th.

The AMC Summit offered an array of topics for discussion over its three-day program, including: a 2020 Election preview; air quality challenges for Arizona; transforming the use of electricity; vehicle electrification; the uses and impacts of drones; securing Arizona’s water future; Arizona’s new landmark occupational licensing law; plastics recycling and waste management; regulatory and legislative updates from various federal and state agencies; forest health and restoration; the designation process and impact of National Heritage Areas; chemical regulations; and a visit to the University’s Forestry Complex.  While forest restoration and fire mitigation may not have been the sole focus of the Summit, the Museum Fire brought these issues into the forefront during most of the various panel discussions and presentations.

Barely three days before the Summit, in the late morning hours of Sunday, July 21, 2019, the Museum Fire made its debut. Within 24 hours of its emergence, the Museum Fire grew from five to 1,000 acres with the help of the relentless Arizona monsoon winds and gusts. By Monday morning, the air over Flagstaff was thick from the heavy smoke and officials cautioned the public of the impact on the air quality. The looming concern, however, was that the current conditions and the forecasted projections of heavy rains were hauntingly reminiscent of the 2010 Schultz Fire which, in just 10 days due to high winds and gusts, burned over 15,000 acres a few miles from downtown Flagstaff.  A month after the Schultz Fire had been contained, monsoon rains brought down approximately 30 million gallons of water and sediment from the burn area flooding residential communities, contaminating drinking water, decimating Native American cultural sites and ending the life of a teenage girl.

With the Schultz Fire still freshly seared in Arizonan’s memory and the grim reality of the Museum Fire’s growth overnight and zero percent containment status, Governor Doug Ducey immediately dispatched his Natural Resources Policy Advisor, Hunter Moore, to Flagstaff along with personnel from numerous state agencies to assist in emergency response operations, including the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management Director David Tenney. Both Moore and Tenney were scheduled to speak at the Summit on Friday morning, and assured the AMC that if the state of the Museum Fire permitted, they would keep their Friday commitment. ~ Spoiler alert: they both spoke at the Summit as scheduled.

The Tuesday, July 23rd status update on the Museum Fire, however, did not seem very promising.  The forecasting of thunderstorms, high winds and the possibility of lightning which could cause another fire in or around the area and/or rains resulting in flash flooding that could endanger the lives and approximately 5,000 homes of those residing near the fire area were of additional significant concern. Fortunately, however, the Tuesday monsoons brought the appropriate measure of rain and the favorable weather conditions enabled the fire fighters to achieve a 10 percent containment of the fire.

The AMC Summit commenced with its program as scheduled the afternoon of Wednesday, July 24th.  While the immediate threat of the Museum Fire had been downgraded by officials late that morning, the situation and the impending potential impacts of the fire were prominent in the discussions and presentations throughout the Summit.  Even prior to the Opening Remarks of that first day, the AMC issued a Press Release announcing the publication of its new report regarding Arizona’s unique challenges with air quality issues, especially in regard to ozone pollutants which includes those generated by wildfires.  In fact, one of the panelists on the Arizona’s air issues panel explained that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed attainment of the 2008 ozone standard for Maricopa County thanks, in part, to exceptional events demonstrations submitted by the State successfully proving that several ozone exceedances in 2017 were attributable to wildfires. The pollutant emissions generated by a wildfire can impact the air quality throughout the entire State and far beyond – an issue and concern that was revisited throughout the next two days of the Summit.

Day two of the Summit, Thursday, July 25th, started early with a presentation from Snell & Wilmer Partner Patrick Paul providing insights on drones and their many uses.  In addition to discussing the evolving drone regulations, potential and actual current and future implications, and highlighting the many uses of drones, he shared how drones can be beneficial tools in combating wildfires or a hindrance to those wildfire operations. The most recent example he provided had occurred less than 48 hours earlier on the evening of July 23rd when critical fire suppression efforts were halted and had to be relocated due to an unauthorized drone flying in the vicinity of aerial operations being conducted on the Museum Fire.

Just as with the topics covering air quality and drones, the Museum Fire reemerged in the panel discussions regarding the securing of Arizona’s water future.  Panelists asserted the importance of healthy forests and fire mitigation efforts in protecting Arizona’s water resources; and stressed the damaging effects a wildfire and aftermath can have on a watershed, especially with the contamination of sediment runoff and sludge from the rainfall.  A visit with Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute at the end of day helped further shed some light on the ecological impacts of wildfires and the importance of forest restoration efforts in preventing the occurrence of the many possible atrocities.

While the first two days of the Summit generated a great deal of discourse about wildfires and forest health, it was the panelists of the last day that affectively relayed the underlining message of all the previous days’ discussions.  Hearing from the panelists that are all too-intimately familiar with the devastating nature of unhealthy forests, their first-hand accounts and experiences with Arizona’s forest health issues, certainly accentuated the importance of this topic. Weaving the previous days’ discussions into their remarks and bringing the full scope of the matter into perspective, the panelists imparted the message that forest health is more than a rural natural resource issue; but rather, it is an issue of environmental-, health-, economic-, urban-, sustainability- and future-consequence.

Over the past several years, the AMC Summit has attempted to draw attention to Arizona’s forest health issues. At the Summit this year, with the raging Museum Fire only a mile away from the conference center, the relevance and urgency of forest health for the sake of the welfare of the public, environment, ecosystem and economy took center stage.