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Tale of Two Fires — Un-Newsworthy Fire is Sign of Success

Peter Warren, The Nature Conservancy

July 4, 2014

It’s fire season in Arizona, which for most of us conjures up images of huge leaping flames, evacuations and fire fighters risking their lives to save communities.

But two of this summer’s fires have not posed a severe threat to communities. Instead they are examples of what needs to happen to restore a healthy balance to our lands.

The San Juan Fire, which started June 26 in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in the White Mountains, initially burned hot and looked ominous. But it has slowed and flames have gone down to the ground. That’s because the fire has burned into areas thinned as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project.

The slowing of the fire has allowed fire fighters to stay on top of it, conduct back burns, and eventually control it, limiting the total area to 7,000 acres.

“Most of the smoke we saw during the last days of the fire was from those back-burns,” says The Nature Conservancy’s Sue Sitko, a member of the stewardship project’s monitoring committee.

“We think some of this fire will be beneficial to the forest,” she adds.

The other fire is the Oak Fire in southern Arizona’s Galiuro Mountains. At 14,000 acres, this fire was twice as large as the San Juan Fire. Because of its location, the minimal threat to communities, and the planning that occurred prior to the fire, the Forest Service was able to allow this fire to help restore grassland and forest health.

“Instead of full suppression, we were able to manage this fire for resource benefit,” said Safford District Ranger Kent Ellett of the Coronado National Forest. “The result was that just 2 percent of the burn area had high-severity fire effects, and the cost was about one-fifth of a comparable sized fire that required full suppression.”

Fire was once a natural part of the landscape. Photos from the late 19th and early 20th century show ponderosa pine forests to be more open. Frequent, low-intensity, slow-moving fires helped maintain a diverse forest, a patchwork of large trees, saplings and open grassy areas.

Decades of fighting fires interrupted that process. Now the ponderosa pine forests are overgrown and weakened by extended drought, making conditions right for huge crown fires that damage communities and water supplies, and threaten lives.

That threat has been reduced on about 75,000 acres thinned as part of the ten-year White Mountain project, begun in 2004 and concluding this summer. But Sitko says much more thinning across northern Arizona is urgently needed to reduce the chances of another Wallow or Schultz Fire.

Sitko serves on a stakeholder group of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which is hoping to ramp up treatments to cover 30,000 to 45,000 acres per year over the next ten years, with more treatments planned over the following decade.

The Oak Fire, which started June 17 from a lightning strike in the grasslands, burned in a rugged southern Arizona wilderness area with a mix of trees, shrubs and grassland. Though dry from years of drought, this fire was a ground fire burning at a low intensity. No homes were threatened, and a team of only 200 fire workers guided its progress.

The Forest Service’s decision to manage the Oak Fire for resource benefits is because of a multi-agency ecosystem management plan completed in April of this year. A key part of that plan is to return fire to a more natural role in the mountains of southeast Arizona.

The groundwork for burning as part of this plan began in the late 1980s when the Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management developed fire plans for Aravaipa Canyon wilderness area on the north end of the Galiuros and the Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area on the south end. Those plans encompassed almost 100,000 acres and cross both BLM and Conservancy lands.

A missing link in those plans was how fire affected fish, in particular the endangered species at both Aravaipa and Muleshoe. The Conservancy, in an effort to learn how fire affected stream habitats and fish populations, conducted controlled burns on 17,000 acres of Muleshoe stream drainages from 1997 to 2000.

The findings were unexpected. Severe drought during those years caused stream flows to decline. But following fire, grass cover increased and fish habitat improved: Pools got deeper and fish populations increased dramatically.

During the burns of 1997 to 2000, the Coronado National Forest had not developed its fire planning to the point where they were ready to sign onto the fire plans.

“When one burn jumped the control line in 1998 and burned a short distance onto forest service land, it created a considerable ruckus,” said the Conservancy’s Bob Rogers, who was the Muleshoe Ranch manager at that time.

The outgrowth of that event led all the groups – the BLM, the Forest Service and the Conservancy — to work towards a single plan that addresses the positive role of fire. It took more than a decade, but the plan finalized in April restores fire to its natural role across an entire mountain range, some 300,000 acres.

“With the right conditions, proper planning and use of tactics and treatments that reduce risk, we can move into an era where wildland fire is used to restore and sustain grasslands and forests as it has done for millennia,” says Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch.

“It is a sign of our success that the Oak Fire is not newsworthy. Use of fire should be considered routine, not alarming,” says the Conservancy’s Rogers.