'It's been horrible': Gov. Ducey signs $100 million legislation to combat wildfires, support local communities

BrieAnna J. Frank
Arizona Republic
Governor Ducey signs bipartisan legislation that dedicates nearly $100 million to combat Arizona wildfires and provide critical relief to communities impacted, on June 18, 2021 at the Governor's Conference Room in Phoenix.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday signed $100 million legislation to combat wildfires spreading through the state and support impacted communities.

Ducey began the 10 a.m. news conference by saying Arizona was in the midst of a "catastrophic" wildfire season, noting that fires around the state had already burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land.

The Telegraph Fire, burning near Globe, merged with the Mescal Fire earlier in the week, and together the fires had scorched more than 193,000 acres by Thursday.

Last year, 2,520 wildfires burned nearly 1 million acres across state, federal and tribal lands, making it one of the worst fire seasons in a decade, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Fire and weather officials expect the 2021 wildfire season will be "severe" and on par with last year's.

"People and pets have been displaced, homes have been burned down, vast swaths of forest and desert have been decimated — it's been horrible," Ducey said on Friday.

The governor said seeing the devastation firsthand during a visit to Globe last week made it clear that "we need to do more to address these wildfires and the disasters that follow."

Ducey called for a special legislative session on Tuesday to secure more support and funding for firefighters and communities. 

The bill includes $25 million to boost efforts to reduce vegetation that contributes to wildfires. The money will go to a joint effort between the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry. The corrections department dispatches inmates on wildfire and hazardous-fuel reduction crews.

The remaining $75 million will be devoted to fire suppression and recovery efforts, as well as assistance for displaced residents and land owners needing emergency repairs to infrastructure. 

Arizona wildfire bill calls for huge increase in spending to fight, prevent fires

"These are crucial steps in the fight against wildfires and the protection of our rural communities," Ducey said.  

The governor said he was grateful for the legislators who quickly came together to help support those impacted by wildfires around the state, as well as the fire crews working "tirelessly" to help communities.

"They came from all over Arizona to fight these fires from the ground to the air," he said. "They put their lives on the line each and every day to protect us and on behalf of the entire state, thank you. We are grateful."

'Help is on the way'

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, was next to speak at the Friday news conference and started with a saying his mother taught him: "Use things, love people, and don't get them backwards."

He commended the ways in which communities have banded together to support one another as wildfires threaten their homes and livelihoods, saying it's an "example of what rural folks do under pressure." 

State Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, who sponsored the legislation, said it's "vital" to invest in resources to prevent and combat wildfires.

"We have invested millions through the years to prevent these catastrophic wildfires and the damages, but as we're seeing this year with the Mescal, the Telegraph and numerous other fires, it hasn't been enough," she said.

Sine Kerr, Arizona State Senator, speaks at the signing of bipartisan legislation dedicating nearly $100 million to fighting Arizona wildfires and providing critical relief to affected communities, June 18, 2021, in the Governor's Conference Room in Phoenix.

Kerr said she was "eager and honored" to sponsor the bill, saying it would give rural communities the support they need both during and after a wildfire. 

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said the wildfires have been "disastrous" to Arizonans and that the threat is here to stay.

"Unfortunately, Arizona remains in a decades-long drought and is experiencing more extreme heat," she said. "These extreme wildfires are likely not going away anytime in our lifetimes. There is no question that there was enormous need to dedicate as many resources as possible to fighting the active wildfires as well as to prevent future ones from occurring."

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Ducey called Rios a "real leader" in fostering bipartisan support for the legislation, and Rios said she was grateful for the bill's passage.

"Protecting Arizonans is not a partisan issue, so I'm very glad we were able to quickly come together and agree on this investment," she said. 

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said the legislation sends a "clear message" to those impacted by the wildfires: "help is on the way." 

Reginald Bolding, member of Arizona House of Representatives, speaks at the signing of bipartisan legislation dedicating nearly $100 million to fighting Arizona wildfires and providing critical relief to affected communities, June 18, 2021, in the Governor's Conference Room in Phoenix.

"I also hope this bipartisan approach and this effort can serve as a wakeup call that climate change is real, that its near-term and long-term threats to our public health, safety and prosperity as a state," he said, adding that legislators "must do everything in our power" to mitigate the threat for future generations.

Gila County Supervisor Steve Christensen said the legislation will be "very helpful" to prevent future wildfires and mitigate post-wildfire issues, which he said are "sometimes worse than the fire themselves." 

"The firefighting community ... works tirelessly, bravely, they're very courageous, and our prayers go out to them and we're very grateful for their service," he said. 

Christensen, echoing previous speakers, thanked those who put politics aside to help Arizonans in need.

"Our county is still on fire and here we have a bill that has gone through very swiftly and is very necessary and we really do appreciate that," he said.

He also thanked various agencies, including the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs for their work on the ground, as well as the governor for signing the legislation into law. 

"When difficulties come, and they undoubtedly have, we find grace in knowing and having friends like you," he said. 

Immediately prior to signing the legislation at the conclusion of the news conference, Ducey said it was "another step in the right direction" and expressed his confidence in Arizona legislators.

"I'm optimistic that this legislature can work together to find solutions to the challenges we face today and the challenges we will face in the future," he said.

Arizona Republic reporter Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this report.

Reach the reporter at bfrank@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8529.  Follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank

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