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 email@example.com