The desert is ablaze. Big Oil lit the match.
As COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Arizona, wildfires burn through mountains and tax dollars.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The Bighorn Fire begins in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Credit: Kelly Michals
The saguaro cacti should’ve been finishing their blooms in June, not burning to the ground.
But it is 2020 after all. As if having recently reached the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the world wasn’t enough, Arizona is also suffering from an onslaught of debilitating wildfires. Scorching hundreds of thousands of acres and forcing thousands to evacuate from their homes, spanning from outer Phoenix to Tucson to north of the Grand Canyon and even the Navajo Nation, four major wildfires over the past two months have marked a boiling point in Arizona state history.
Who could’ve predicted this? Exxon, actually, more than 40 years ago. An internal company memo from 1979 warned that due to rising CO2 levels created by their products, “the southwest states would be hotter, probably by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit, and drier.”
The ripple effects of wildfires, especially in the tinderbox of an increasingly hot and dry desert landscape, are wide-ranging. There is the obvious damage to homes, crops, and living landscapes; the closures of roads and highways; the significant scar on regional biodiversity. But there are less obvious consequences, too, like the flash floods that happen when rain falls on eroded landscapes after a wildfire, carrying blackened sludge filled with wildfire debris downstream and infiltrating homes and waterways below. Since the Bighorn Fire struck Pima Canyon in early June, the County Regional Flood Control District has sent out letters to 400 homeowners warning that their already-flooding property will be at even greater risk during the summer monsoons.
Travis Bruner, Conservation Director of the Grand Canyon Trust, told me that suppression of the natural fire cycle north of the Grand Canyon has set back a nearly 20-year-long forest restoration effort designed to prevent just this kind of disaster from occurring. “Climate change only increases our urgency and the need for forest restoration in northern Arizona,” Bruner said. “We are going to continue to see fires burning like this if we’re not able to perform the forest restoration that would minimize the threats to communities.”
That’s not to mention the unforeseen financial hits to communities near the path of destruction. “Recreation and tourism on public lands is an incredibly important economic contributor in northern Arizona,” said Bruner. “These severe wildfires are going to have negative impacts that way and could limit the number of people who want to come visit these areas and spend money in these towns.”
In one of the fastest-warming states in the country, where the largest, most destructive wildfires have all occurred in the past two decades, the destruction will almost certainly get worse. Combined with a drought problem that’s expected to more than triple by mid-century, Arizona could see 115 days with high wildfire potential by 2050. Forty-five percent of Arizona’s population, or almost 2.9 million people, are already at risk of experiencing wildfire damage — a statistic playing out in real time as thousands of people face evacuation from their homes with little to no notice.
Senator Victoria Steele of Tucson, where the already $37-million Bighorn Fire still blazes through the Catalina Mountains, says it’s time to come to terms with the crisis putting Arizonans in danger.
“The people of southern Arizona are grappling with our new reality of a hotter, drier future and the knowledge that these fires are no longer confined to one season, but all year long,” Sen. Steele said. “We cannot write off these wildfires as random acts of nature. It will take political courage and quick action for us to mitigate the consequences of climate change."
The fossil fuel industry’s successful efforts to stall climate policy for decades mean that, regardless of future actions, communities will still need to deal with the costs of already-baked-in climate disasters like this summer’s wildfires. With local budgets, public healthcare, and lives under unprecedented pressure from the state’s extraordinary spike in COVID-19 infection rates, communities could end up paying a fatal price.
This struggle is nowhere more plain than in Arizona’s portion of the Navajo Nation, a Native reservation spanning northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico, where decades of uranium and coal operations left a scar. The Nation has been devastated by unusually high coronavirus rates since the pandemic started: Indigenous people account for 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Arizona, but make up just 3.9 percent of the state’s population. Then, the Wood Springs Fire 2 made its way to the reservation. The still-active fire has left Navajo families preparing for evacuation procedures that officials fear will lead to increased COVID-19 transmission due to the close quarters of public shelters, and pollution from wildfire smoke in the region could increase vulnerability to that risk.
“With this Covid and this fire now, the only thing we can do is pray and help each other," Wilson Stewart Jr, a Navajo Nation council delegate, told the Guardian.
One thing is clear across the Grand Canyon state: communities have been left to fend for themselves against the fossil fuel industry’s destruction for far too long. Polluters spread climate denial through false advertising, fake science, and lobbying in order to sell their products — yet they have contributed nothing to helping communities stay safe from the outcome.
"The Bighorn Fire is an example of what goes wrong when we fail to address climate change and get real about its implications,” says Arizona House Member Andrés Cano, who represents Tucson and the rest of Pima County. “Our land, lives, and livelihoods are at risk because oil and gas executives decided their bottom line was more important than our health and safety.”
Communities in California and Colorado that have taken Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to court point to local wildfires as one of many damages that the industry knew their products would cause. It’ll be up to Arizona’s elected officials to decide whether they too will take action to ensure their communities don’t foot the bill alone.
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