Run, Forest

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: May 2014
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One year after the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire, Arizona’s forest rangers and firefighters brace themselves for another wildfire season.

“Nervous.” That’s how Lakeside forest ranger Ed Collins feels about the upcoming fire season.

“We’re very concerned because of the lack of winter precipitation that we would normally have,” adds Darrell Willis, Prescott Wildland Division Chief.

Jim Zornes, forest supervisor of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, is concerned, too: “Before the rain [in March], we were as dry or drier than we were in 2002, the year of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. They’re forecasting that we might have a wetter than normal April and May... If not, we’ll make the necessary preparations for what could be an interesting fire season.”

The men have reason to be apprehensive. They’ve witnessed both Arizona’s largest wildfire – the Wallow Fire of 2011 – and its deadliest – the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 of 20 firefighters in the Granite Mountain Hotshots last June. One area of concern: Last summer’s monsoon sprouted a bumper crop of grasses that could turn into crisp-dry tinder come summer.

They also know that we are living in a new and perhaps permanent era of intense wildfires. “In Region 3, which is New Mexico and Arizona, large fires are becoming the norm,” Zornes says.

It’s a nationwide phenomenon. Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service chief told Congress that, compared to 40 years ago, wildfires burn twice as many acres each year, and rising temperatures plus earlier snow melt stretch the annual fire season by more than two months. A century ago, forests were sparser, and lighting-sparked, low-smoldering fires cleared grass and saplings. But decades of large-tree logging and the Forest Service’s policy of “all fires out by 10 a.m.” – which nipped those brush-clearing blazes in the bud – left forests clogged with small trees that kindle today’s catastrophic conflagrations.

But policy has changed. Forest thinning, controlled burning, and grassland treatment projects are being conducted across Arizona, including the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) and White Mountain Stewardship Contract (WMSC) – collaborations between the Forest Service, timber companies and environmental groups to thin forests and create products from small trees.

Though conceived in 2009, 4FRI “is still in its infancy,” Zornes says. Budgetary concerns and a contractor change delayed its goal of treating 2.4 million acres in the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto National Forests. Through the WMSC, which launched in 2004 in response to the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, more than 70,000 acres have been treated, hundreds of jobs have been created, and several small-timber startups were given a subsidized supply. Collins says the WMSC has been a success for forest and economic health, despite falling short of its original goal of treating 150,000 acres. “We had to live within our means, which meant we didn’t get as much treatment of the land that the contract could have produced,” Collins says. He’s also concerned that when the 10-year contract ends in August and transitions from government subsidization to the competitive market, even fewer acres will be treated. “If we don’t slow down or prevent some of that cycle by killing some of those trees by fire when they’re young, by thinning them out when they’re product-size, we’re destined to repeat these big fires over large scales.”

“There’s no doubt [thinning] lessened the intensity of the fires,” Zornes says. “It doesn’t necessarily make the fire go out, but it gives our firefighters an opportunity, when the fire drops out of the canopy and down on the ground, [to] manage it better.”

The Granite Mountain Hotshots would have spent the winter treating the forest around Prescott, but another crew had to take over. Willis says there won’t be a new hotshot team this year, or possibly ever. In response to the tragedy, the Prescott Fire Department is considering equipping firefighters with GPS and altering aircraft strategy, but he says, “I think it’s a bit early to tell. I am sure there will be changes. I think there’s a heightened awareness of fighting fire when there’s thunderstorms present. I think firefighters are [asking] ‘Is it worth putting your life in danger for infrastructure [and] homes?’”

As they approach what may be a difficult fire season, the Prescott Fire Department’s morale has lessened, but their resolve is high. “[The Yarnell Hill Fire] weighs heavy on our hearts, each and every day,” Willis says. “I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that any firefighter doesn’t remember June 30th. But then there’s a commitment to never having that happen again.”

Arizona’s Biggest Wildfires
Wallow Fire, 2011
538,049 acres
White Mountains

Rodeo-Chediski Fire, 2002
468,638 acres
White Mountains
arson and signal fire

Cave Creek Complex Fire, 2005
248,310 acres
Cave Creek area

Horseshoe Two Fire, 2011
223,000 acres
Chiricahua Mountains
human (undetermined)

Willow Fire, 2004
119,500 acres
Payson area