In the Lake View Campground near Upper Lake Mary, Flagstaff Hotshots have been a visible force, cutting down potentially dangerous trees and stacking logs and branches. Seasonal wildland firefighter Kyle Fix says he and his team are practicing their skills and getting ready for the call.
“We can end up anywhere. We’re considered a national resource,” Fix said. ”So right now, the West is dry so that’s where we’re prepping to be.”
Arizona’s fire season typically occurs between mid-May and the end of June, that period of time when spring winds and higher temperatures often make for a dry forest before the monsoon rains arrive, which usually happens in July.
Ecologist Wally Covington, Ph.D., reminds all those who live in and near Arizona’s forests to make their properties fire safe.
“One of the problems that I’ve seen around Flagstaff, I’ve seen it in Prescott and in other areas, too, is that people often will start out in a big way about being fire wise,” said Covington, a Regents’ professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University and the director of the Ecological Restoration Institute. “But then a few years pass and there are no fires in the area. Then five years pass and then by 10 years, the house is in the middle of a big fuel matrix again that would be a fire threat. So this is one of those things you have to stay on top of. You can’t just do it once and you’re done.”
He says strategic forest thinning and prescribed burning projects have been successful at protecting communities. He credits such efforts for keeping last summer’s Slide fire in Oak Creek Canyon from burning into Flagstaff, Kachina Village, Mountainaire and Forest Highlands. He says forest treatments around Greer protected that White Mountains community from Arizona’s largest fire, the Wallow fire in 2011. Both of those, along with the half-million-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002, were firestorms he saw coming more than 25 years ago when he and fire officials from the state and the Forest Service studied the overcrowded forest conditions across Arizona.
“As we looked at those, I could clearly see five major areas where large fires could occur. Now at that time, we’d had no fires in excess of 100,000 acres. Big fires back then were 4,000-acre, 5,000-acre fires, but as we looked at fuel accumulation, what I saw was the potential for five mega fires.”
Covington defines mega fires as those that are far outside the normal range of what ponderosa pine and other dry forest types have experienced historically or even throughout evolutionary time.
“They just never had the kinds of fuels that they have today after 120 years of fire exclusion. When we have fires that are that hot, they kill trees that are 300, 400, 700 years old that have experienced many natural fires, but never a canopy fire, a crown fire. Because these fires remove not only the vegetation, but also the soil organic material, these areas are highly erodible, so we have soil washing downslope into our streams and rivers damaging fisheries habitat, filling in reservoirs and causing degradation in water supplies for municipalities.”
He warns that Arizona still has several major fire alleys at risk for large fires. “One is the whole Prescott complex of pine mixed with oak and chaparral. So that’s a major complex that is yet to have a mega fire.”
Another, he says, is the Payson area and up toward Winslow.
To prevent these kinds of fires, forest managers continue to thin excess trees and burn forest debris. They hope the treated areas will break up the landscape and build in defensible space, giving firefighters a place to stop the flames and prevent mega fires.
For the long term, Covington remains hopeful that large-scale ecological restoration efforts will do more than simply reduce the fuel accumulation and return much of Arizona’s forests to a more natural structure and a sustainable, healthy condition.
“It’s like we’ve got these sick patients that are all of sudden confronted with being out in the middle of a wilderness and they are just not going to survive as well as a healthy individual would.”
However, major forest health projects will take time. At the local level, where people are living, “the idea is to keep fuels away from your back door,” he said. “We’ve got very good programs throughout Arizona to do that, to thin out and remove fuels from around homes, to be sure that your woodpiles are not close to the house, that your gutters are cleaned out and that you build with fire-wise materials.” FBN
To learn more about how to reduce your home’s risk for wildfire damage, visit http://www.firewise.org/.
By Bonnie Stevens
Flagstaff Business News