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California is burning. Are we next?

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Want to peek into the future?

Google “California wildfires.”

California’s on fire. Hundreds of thousands of people have evacuated from their homes. Hundreds of homes have burned. The electric utility company’s broke. Millions have lost power. The 80-mile-an-hour winds are blowtorching thickets of trees and brush that haven’t burned in decades. And during those decades, people wedged whole towns into the chaparral and overgrown forests.

Are forested Arizona towns heading for just such a disaster?

Granted, we’ve got fewer people and fewer homes to burn. But the communities that could burn include Payson, Pine, Show Low, Heber-Overgaard, Lakeside, Pinetop, Alpine and a few other places close to home.

The best chance of avoiding such a fate lies in the success of the faltering 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI). And that’s why the fine print in the plan to burn and thin 1.4 million acres holds the key to the survival of the whole region. The fires in California have only underscored the mostly neglected lessons of the 500,000-acre Rodeo Chediski fire.

We can’t stop the fire forever. Either we do something now – or watch it all burn. Maybe soon.

The Forest Service recently released the Rim Country Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the second phase of its unprecedented effort to avert disaster by restoring the ecosystem of an entire region. This series delves into that massive environmental report. Today’s installment looks at the desperate wildfire danger facing the region – and the plan for avoiding California’s agony.

The section regarding fire in the 700-page EIS runs for hundreds of pages, filled with terrifying detail on the transformation of a healthy, fire-adapted forest into a wood-choked tinderbox, filled with towns and subdivisions.

The devastating changes stemmed directly from misguided federal policies, combined with a lack of county and town codes to reduce the chance of a town-destroying fire like the one that consumed Santa Rosa, California, in 2017 and Paradise last year, killing 85 people who couldn’t flee the onrushing flames fast enough.

Crown fires as a

measuring stick for the threat of catastrophe

The key point in avoiding a town-destroying wildfire lies in avoiding crown fires — powerful fires that leap from treetop to treetop.

In a passive crown fire, flames spread from tree to tree as fast as the wind can blow. In an active crown fire, a wall of flame roars through the forest, reaching from the saplings and debris on the ground up into the treetops. This wall of flame, has arms reaching out 100 or 200 feet.

The forest once had about 50 trees per acre. Grass grew tall as a horse’s belly between the giant, 500-year-old trees, each with the lowest branches well above the reach of the flames from frequent grass fires. The low-intensity fires burned through every 2 to 22 years. These low-intensity ground fires took out the saplings and brush, returned nutrients to the soil and did little harm to the big trees.

In the pre-settlement forest just 5 percent of the forest could generate an active crown fire and less than 20 percent could generate a passive crown fire.

In that forest, communities like Show Low would face little danger of burning to the ground. But that’s not the kind of forest that surrounds area communities. Plus, not one of the counties or towns in the study area has mandatory Firewise or Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) building codes to slow the spread of flames through the community.

Human activity has warped that natural forest beyond recognition. First, we unleashed cattle, which ate all the grass and stopped the frequent ground fires. Next, we cut down most of the big trees, letting millions of small trees grow in their wake. Finally, the Forest Service for the last 100 years rushed to put out every single fire within 24 hours, allowing tons of dead and downed wood to build up on every single acre.

And how did that work out?

According to the EIS, some 78 percent of the ponderosa pine forest in the 1.4-million-acre study area is now vulnerable to crown fires. A horrifying 23 percent of the forest can generate an active crown fire, with that unstoppable wall of flame.

The news gets no better when you look at other forest types. Some 70 percent of the mixed ponderosa pine/oak woodland could sustain a passive crown fire and 36 percent an active crown fire. In the dry mixed conifer dominated by Douglas fir, 77 percent of the land faces the threat of a passive crown fire and 54 percent an active crown fire.

The analysis offers lots of other grim statistics on the dire threat of catastrophic fire, from the destruction of watersheds to fires that burn so hot the forest can never come back. But you can grasp the overview if you keep focused on the danger of a community-destroying crown fire.

So what’s the plan to prevent these catastrophes?

The environmental study considers three possibilities.

Alternative 1: Keep on keeping on – the “no action” alternative. In this scenario – things keep getting worse and the area subject to crown fires will grow to 84 percent.

Alternative 2: Dramatically thin the forest, with both logging projects and a big increase in controlled burns. This “preferred” alternative involves treatments on 77 percent of the 1.4 million acres. That includes 900,000 acres of thinning projects, followed up with at least two controlled burns in the ensuing 10 years. Another 63,000 acres would be treated with only controlled burns.

Alternative 3: This alternative would reduce smoke in the short term, but treat only half as much land — about 47 percent of the landscape. However, the untreated areas would eventually burn in high-intensity fires – generating far more health-harming smoke in the long run.

So let’s focus on Alternative 2, which would treat three out of four acres across a vast, tree-choked landscape. Granted — the Forest Service will have to overcome huge problems to hit that goal. Private companies will have to build a new timber industry, with paper mills, oriented strand board plants, sawmills and other businesses that can turn a profit on small trees. Even more challenging, the Forest Service must do something with some 30 tons of brush and debris piled up on almost every acre, with little value beyond burning it to generate electricity, which the Arizona Corporation Commission decided not to mandate earlier this year.

But set that issue aside for a future installment.

The forest we’ll be living in if 4FRI works out

So, let’s start with whether your house will burn down.

If you’re sitting in the ponderosa pine forest – the odds of an active crown fire hitting town would drop to about 1 percent. Only 2 percent of the forests around town would have a “moderate” fire risk rating and only 1 percent would have a “high” Fire Hazard Index rating. None of the ponderosa pine forests in the WUI interface would rate as “very high” risk.

Near the end of the massive environmental analysis, one graph summed up the impact of the thinning projects on the threat of active crown fires. The acres subject to crown fires would drop in every forest type:

Ponderosa pine: 22 percent vs. 1 percent

Pine/oak: 30 percent vs. 0 percent

Dry mixed conifer: 54 percent vs. 11 percent

Wet mixed conifer: 70 percent vs. 13 percent

Aspen: 5 percent vs 2 percent

Pinyon juniper: 67 percent vs. 25 percent

Pinyon/oak: 80 percent vs. 41 percent

Riparian: 19 percent vs. 2 percent

That’s a dramatic reduction in risk. Still, the risk remains, which means counties and towns will still need Firewise and WUI codes to survive in the new era of frequent prescribed fires and slowly diminishing crown fire risk.

The report notes that even though the number of controlled burns in the cooler months will increase, not acting will create far more harmful smoke. If we do nothing, wildfires will over time release 3,500 pounds of smoke emissions per acre. A combination of thinning and controlled burns will produce 2,000 pounds of smoke emissions per acre. Burning biomass would have an even greater impact, since the power plants would capture most of the harmful emissions.

And here’s an interesting tidbit.

Right now, 66 percent of the power lines go through areas at high risk of a crown fire. If we do nothing, that will increase to 74 percent. Please note, downed power lines started enough fires in California to bankrupt PG & E.

In a treated forest, only 6 percent of the power lines would pass through crown fire territory.

So go watch the California fires burn on the TV.

That’s our future.

Unless things change.

And 4FRI succeeds.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Raise your hand: School funding and attendance

SHOW LOW — The Show Low Unified School District (SLUSD) and 40 other public schools in Arizona were audited by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) in 2018 for attendance. Average Daily Membership or “ADM” were audited for Fiscal Years 2015, 2016 and 2017. Audits for 2018 are still in process.

The combined-year audit “determined that the district incorrectly reported some enrollment data, which resulted in its Average Daily Membership being overstated by 55.58,” according to the December 19, 2018, written report. In addition, the report indicates that the District’s Arizona Online Instruction (AOI) program was overstated by .40 which resulted in a total overstatement of enrollment by 55.98.

The district is provided Basic State Aid (education funding) based on student enrollment — called Average Daily Membership — numbers reported to the Arizona Department of Education.

Essentially, this means that the state overfunded the District in the amount of $261,146.35.

This amount was repaid to the state during the 2019-2020 school year budget cycle, as required by law.

“The repayment was almost equivalent to the amount we saw restored by the State from cuts to our budget in District Additional Assistance (Capital Funding),” says District Superintendent Shad Housley.

“The repayment did not impact teachers or staff and all of the employee raises, plus more, were offered,” he adds. “The District is sound, fiscally.”

Locally, Show Low is not the only school district or educational entity that has faced this issue.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, Holbrook Unified School District was overfunded by $63,811 for FY 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) was overfunded by $15,930 for the same fiscal years.

Northeast Arizona Technological Institute of Vocational Education (NATIVE), primarily located north of Interstate 40, was overfunded by $1,330,639 for FY 2015, 2016 and 2017.

What is ADM?

Public schools rely on state funding which is based on their Average Daily Membership (ADM). In layman’s terms, ADM means attendance, which equals state funding, but the calculation for ADM is complex.

Taking attendance and reporting that information back to the Arizona Department of Education would seem simple, but over the years, it has become more complicated for schools. Funding is incremental and varies by a long list of factors.

“When you look at average daily membership, it’s a little more complex than it appears. When the state does an ADM audit, they examine the exact number of minutes that students are in class,” explains Housley. “They assume that all four classes last sixty minutes but that’s not always the case.”

“They pull up our class schedules and passing periods which is the time between classes. There used to be six class periods at 55 minutes each; now we have seven class periods at 50 minutes each with 10-minute passing periods (passing periods count as instructional time.)”

Housley provided an examples of how enrollment might be measured for a high school student in the 2015-2016 school year when compared to a high school student in 2018-2019 school year.

Scenario A

In the first example, the 2015-16 high school junior (11th grade) has six class periods that include English, Algebra, World History, Biology and Welding.

To be considered a full-time student measuring 1.0 in average daily membership, that meet 720 hours per year. This student has met the criteria with their English, Algebra, World History and Biology classes by attending class for a total of 240 minutes per day (180 day school year).

The student attends Welding class at Northeastern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) after their four classes on campus. The CTE class is reported as an additional .25 in Certified Technical Education (CTE).

In this scenario, the 1.0 at SLHS plus the .25 at NAVIT for CTE total ADM of 1.25.

Scenario B

In this example, the 2017-2018 high school junior (11th grade) has the same classes: English, Algebra, World History, Biology and Welding, however the student attends NAVIT in the morning before coming to Show Low High School.

With the four academic classes at 50 minutes each, plus 10 minute passing periods, the student is still considered a full-time student measuring 1.0 in average daily membership. The four, 50 minute classes equal 200 minutes class time per day plus the 10 minute passing periods equals 240 minutes total, which is required for full-time.

This student has only three, 10 minute passing periods between classes which can be added to equal 230 minutes class time per day. This does not meet the state’s criteria to be reported as 1.0 average daily membership.

This student’s enrollment should be reported as .75 plus .25 for NAVIT.

The key is that the district and NAVIT are funded separately. Should the district report the student as 1.0 instead of .75, then they could be overfunded and would need to repay funding to the state.

The exception is the rule

NAVIT and other Career Technical Education classes provide some of the most common examples of Average Daily Membership reporting formulas.

Some students attend Northland Pioneer College to earn college credit. They may be full time students but their time off-campus may change, incrementally, how the district reports enrollment.

There are also students enrolled in the district’s Arizona Online Instruction (AOI) program which is measured from July 1 through June 30, which is different than the regular school year ADM.

“There are times when an AOI student is registered for four online classes that equal 1.0 average daily enrollment,” explains Housley. “But, should they decide to drop a class or perhaps finish only three of the four classes, our reporting must be adjusted after we have already reported to the state.”

“It is a complex process to go back and recalculate that student’s enrollment,” assures Housley.

Special Education students, homeschooled students that attend some classes on campus are additional examples where funding is not so straightforward.

The type of class, the location of the class, the length of th class, the number and length of passing periods and even the length of lunch periods are considered in Average Daily Membership reporting formulas.

Simply put — when it comes to reporting Average Daily Membership, increments matter and small differences can add up for any school district.

See Part 2 in Tuesday’s Independent.

Six local fire districts send firefighters to California

WHITE MOUNTAINS – Many of the local fire districts in both Navajo and Apache counties have sent firefighters and equipment to help with the plethora of wildfires now burning in California.

According to a press release from the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, nearly 120 Arizona firefighters and 34 engines arrived in California to lend a hand on multiple wildfires burning across that state.

“On Thursday, Oct. 24, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management received an initial order for ten engines to head to California. On Sunday, California fire officials asked for 24 more,” the press release states.

“Some of those crews are staged in anticipation of new fire starts while others are acting as backfill for local departments.

California was experiencing extreme winds and red flag warnings on Wednesday creating even more dangerous fire conditions. Firefighters are on a minimum 14-day assignment.

Local fire departments that have sent crews include Concho, Pinetop, St. Johns, Taylor-Snowflake, Timber Mesa and Vernon.

Vernon Fire Chief Dave Niehuis said he has one Type 3 engine and three firefighters in the staging process at this time in California. He said he was unsure exactly where they were and which fire they would be assigned to because they will be sent to they are needed most.

“Depending on the specific fire (the firefighters will be assigned to), there are specific resources that are needed. And things can change during travel time, so they are unsure of where they will be going. And it took time for them to get here (to the station in Vernon) and gear up, then they had to gear up the engine, and then get going,” Niehuis said.

Niehuis said that the Concho, St. Johns and Greer Fire Departments also have an engine apiece and either 3 or 4 person crews helping in California at this time.

Pinetop Fire Chief Jim Morgan said he too has a Type 3 engine and four firefighters in California; they went there last Thursday, Oct. 24. Morgan said the most recent wildfire they were on was the 37-acre Miller Fire in San Diego County.

“They were on that fire two days ago,” Morgan said Wednesday, Oct. 30. “And three structures were lost in that one.”

He said his wildland firefighters are typically sent to the high danger front lines adding that they will be required to take a two day rest break in five days before they can go back on the lines.

Morgan said he does not know when they will return to Arizona yet because things are so bad in California right now. Overnight Tuesday night another fire called the Simi Fire in Simi Valley threatened the Reagan Library and other structures.

Morgan said his firefighters in California right now have all the resources they need and asked the public to just send prayers and well-wishes to them and the residents threatened by the California wildfires.

Chief Clay Wood with Timber Mesa Fire and Medical in Show Low also said they sent a Type 3 engine and three wildland firefighters who were in the Sequoia National Forest as of Wednesday, Oct. 30 in pre-positioning mode. They went to California Sunday, Oct. 27 and will be there for an unspecified period of time.

Most wildland firefighters work either a 14 or 21-day rotation.

Wood said it is near impossible to say right now what will happen in California with hundreds of new fires breaking out, sometimes overnight, and the flames being driven by winds as high as 75 mph.

Wood too said what his firefighters need most right now from people in Show Low is prayers and well-wishes for them and people in California threatened by the fires.

Ten wildfires were burning across areas of northern and southern California on Oct. 31 according to the CalFire website which include the Getty, Saddle Ridge and Tick Fires near Los Angeles, the Caples Fire 18 miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe, and in northern California the Kinkade Fire 10 miles northeast of Geyserville, the Burris Fire 4 miles south of Potter Valley, and the South Fire burning 15 miles south of Platina.

Those seven fires alone have burned nearly 98,000 acres that have threatened some of the highest property values in the state in places the like in Brentwood neighborhood near Los Angeles where basketball legend Lebron James and his family were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night when fire threatened their multi-million dollar home.