It began in flames.
The Big Burn swept through 3 million acres in the northwest in 1910, consuming whole towns and killing 87 people – most of them firefighters.
It ended in flames 80 years later.
Lightning sparked the 24,000 Dude Fire on the face of the Mogollon Rim and a century-long accumulation of fuel erupted into a 30,000-foot-tall pillar of flame. When it collapsed, the fire consumed five firefighters and revealed the failure of an heroic, misguided, decades long effort to banish fire from the forest.
In between the Big Burn and the Dude Fire lay an era of hope and hubris – heart heartrending courage melting into breathtaking miscalculation. This second installment of the wildfire series by the Payson Roundup and the White Mountain Independent will examine the roots of the catastrophe that now threatens all forested communities.
We now live in the long shadow of that era bookended by tragedy and drought. The the decisions made in the obscuring smoke of the Big Burn now threaten the survival of the world’s largest Ponderosa Pine forest and every community built in its midst – from Pine to Alpine and every point in between.
Northern Arizona University forester Wally Covington 40 years ago begin documenting the dismaying changes in the forest as a result of those policies, playing perhaps the single key role in documenting the debilitating, unnatural condition of millions of acres of forested land – including all of Rim Country and the White Mountains.
“When you look at the history of policy – not just forestry and natural resources but policy in general – jingoism tends to run the day. You look at a complex problem and come up with a simple tag line. And that dominates sometimes for multiple generations.”
The broadly held determination to tame the wilderness and turn the forests into hard-working tree farms dominated the thinking of early 20th Century foresters. The Big Burn turned fire into the enemy – not just because it devoured valuable timber but because it could destroy the forest, he said.
“Fire was the enemy – it’s no coincidence they call the firefighting planes slurry ‘bombers.’ We had just fought World War I – so it’s almost like we were at war with fire – and people didn’t question it much. Today’s manifestation is that managed fire is the answer – and I’m seeing a lot of that same jingoistic thinking. Don’t tell us anything bad about managed fire – because that’s the solution. That jingoistic thinking is really a problem” whether indulged in by environmentalists, foresters or loggers, he concluded.
Back before we remade the world in our funhouse mirror image, it was different.
In 1890, the millions of acres of ponderosa pine forest in Rim Country and the White Mountains averaged perhaps 15-70 trees per acre on a forested savannah where the grass was belly-high to a horse. Fires burned through harmlessly every five or eight years, barely touching the 600-year-old “yellow belly” pines that dominated the landscape. Giants some 30 or 40 or 60 inches in diameter, the great pines took root when the Hohokam still farmed their fields – centuries before the founding of a brash young nation on a distant coast in 1776.
When a wildfire burned through that landscape, it returned nutrients to the soil, thinned the saplings, cleaned a few years accumulation of debris and barely marked the big trees, according to an exhaustive reconstruction of that lost forest by researchers from the University of Arizona and elsewhere.
By the time the Dude Fire delivered its devastating lesson in 1990, tree densities had grown to 500 or 1,000 per acre. Most trees were 6-10 inches in diameter. Every acre of forest had 30 or 100 tons of dead wood and debris. Many areas hadn’t seen a wildfire in decades.
When a wildfire burns through such landscape in the hot, dry months, it kills every tree, sterilizes the soil, races through the crowns and dramatically increases erosion and flash flooding.
How did a century of Forest Service management turn a resilient, diverse, fire-adapted forest into a sickly tinderbox – poised to swallow whole towns in a ravenous gulp?
It’s a story sketched by decades of research at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University that turns on a few, simple themes – however tragically complicated the details.
First cattle ate the grass that carried the ground fires.
Then the Forest Service dedicated itself to suppressing wildfires.
Then the logging industry cut the most fire-adapted trees, leaving the thickets behind.
As a final bitter irony, years of lawsuits by environmental groups determined to save the remaining big trees helped finish off the already faltering big-tree-dependent logging industry. This came just as studies at NAU and elsewhere suggested only a reinvented timber industry could remove enough of the tree thickets to restore fire to its essential place in the system.
Covington said the Forest Service foresters deliberately looked to widespread grazing to all but eliminate the frequent, low-intensity fires that shaped the pre-settlement forests.
“Early foresters came out to our southwestern ecosystems and looked at these forests and said, ‘what beautiful, big old yellow pines, but there aren’t enough of them.’ There were not enough of them because fire was killing the baby trees. So they deliberately encouraged heavy livestock grazing to eliminate fires burning through every 3 to 10 years….that was the policy.”
The Big Burn fit into that model perfectly, since it provided the enemy the Forest Service needed politically – Fire.
But eighty years later, the Dude Fire demonstrated the failure of that approach. Fire could perhaps be managed or diverted or accommodated or deferred – but it can’t be stopped. The Forest Service now spends $4 billion annually fighting wildfires, but still can’t prevent a Dude or Yarnell or Rodeo or Chedeski or Wallow or Shultz fire from exploding out of control on that inevitable 100-degree day, with 7 percent humidity after a year of drought in a forest with 1,000 struggling trees per acre.
The lesson in humility, balance and realism starts in 1910, the turning point in the management of the forest – in the midst of a severe drought.
In Arizona, the surrender of the last Apache warriors with Geronimo in 1886 opened the door to a headlong rush to exploit the grasslands and forests of Arizona.
Arizona State University fire historian Steven Pyne has made a deep study of fire throughout the world, especially in the southwest. His research suggests Native Americans likely spent 10,000 years burning the mountains and valleys of Arizona, fostering the development of a fire-adapted ecosystem.
But when soldiers loaded Geronimo and the last of the warriors onto cattle cars for their journey into exile, it threw open the whole of Arizona to settlement. The rush of cattle to those grasslands and forested savannahs worked permanent changes in the range. When the same drought that caused the Big Burn hit Arizona, cattle died in huge numbers – but not before all but destroying vast swaths of grassland.
The Big Burn and the heroism of the firefighters who faced those unstoppable flames worked a dramatic change in the politics of federal land management. The visionary head of the Forest Service, Guifford Pinchott, insisted the Forest Service would save the forests from the flames – and nurture a timber industry in the process.
Covington maintains that grazing and fire suppression caused the enormous increase in tree densities. However, that deliberate effort to thicken the forest was conceived by foresters mostly to benefit the timber industry. The foresters assumed they could manage the big increase in tree densities that would follow from fire’s exclusion, said Covington.
They envisioned a European-style system of hand thinning of seedlings to create a tree density that would maximize wood production – with as many 100-year-old trees per acre as possible.
“What they had in mind was to impleent European-style silviculture — thin them, space them out, get maximum wood production and go through whole cycle. They didn’t worry about wildlife or old growth: It was all about a logical cultivation of trees to produce wood products.”
However, the overgrazing and fire suppression led to a explosion in ponderosa pine seedlings in 1919, a perfect, wet year. Most of the ponderosa pines in the forest today took root at about that time. Without fire to weed them out, they formed the basis of the “doghair thickets” of trees that now dominate the forest.
“They had so many on so many acres they couldn’t afford to do pre-commercial thinning. They were way more successful than they thought they would be. That is the nature of the fire dialogue: If fire is the enemy of the forest, then fire is not a thinning tool. But that was the dominant narrative: Fire is bad and that lasted way into the 1970s on Forest Service land.”
But after a century of fire seclusion, reintroducing fire poses a host of complex choices.
“I would just say, be cautious above overly simplistic solutions. Realize that different situations and different objectives ae going to result in different treatments. You have to resist this kind of uniform quackery of one size fits all.”
However, the future of the forest is at stake in the next few decades he said – especially with predictions that a steady rise in average global temperatures will cause more droughts and more extreme weather conditions in the southwest.
On the other hand, he’s also heartened by watching the changes over the course of decades in study plots he has measured meticulously following restoration treatments that have restored pre-settlement tree densities and fire frequency.
“There are butterflies, songbirds, elk – you get into them and you just feel it’s a healthy ecosystem . As we’ve been able to increase the acreage, its kind of its own reward. I feel like we’re making progress now on a scale and at a pace where it can really make a difference. It really in me evokes a kind of an emotional sense of well-being – that I’m spending my life doing what I should be doing.”
Peter Aleshire is editor of the Payson Roundup, the sister newspaper of the White Mountain Independent.