Love for photography

This drone photo was submitted by Blue Ridge High School student Gretchen Knox of the fall colors near Horseshoe Cienega Lake. The forest may look beautiful especially in fall, but tree densities are far above healthy levels in many areas.

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Not too hot. Not too cool.

Not too often. Not too rarely.

Turns out, restoring forest health through controlled burns is a lot more complicated than foresters first assumed.

That’s the troubling conclusion that emerges from a sweeping review of decades of tinkering with the formula for controlled burns in the ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest, published jointly by a host of fire research centers operated by the US Forest Service.

The future of the forest and every community in its long shadow hangs on the conclusions emerging from efforts to restore fire to its natural role in the forest ecology over the past 20 years.

Everyone now agrees that tree densities pose a real threat to the forest and forested communities, with an ecosystem adapted to 50 trees per acre now smothered under 1,000 trees per acre. Crown fires have not only consumed whole towns, they’ve also changed the ecosystem so that ponderosa pine forest simply don’t come back.

A century of fire suppression and grazing dramatically reduced the number of fires across millions of acres. This eventually replaced an open, grassy forest with a sickly, overcrowded forest – prone to soil-sterilizing, town-destroying crown fires.

The controlled burns on thousands of acres across Arizona right now attests to the new focus on prescribed burns. However, the proliferation of towns and subdivisions together in a forest burdened with an average of 34 tons of dead and downed wood on every acre means that a random return of fire to the landscape will work devastating changes.

“Naturally occurring fires will likely never play a role in most ecosystems again because of changes that have occurred with Euro-American settlement,” concluded the study authors, which included Stephen Sackett, Sally Haase and Michale Harrington.

However, studies of prescribed fires stretching back 50 years suggests managed fires combined with large scale thinning projects could restore healthy forest conditions. However, every fire also has the potential to get out of control and cause disaster.

The study validates the effort by the Forest Service to use prescribed fires on thousands of acres in the cooler weeks of fall, before winter’s rains and snow make such burns impossible.

However, the researchers concluded “using fire in current forest conditions is much different than fire thinning that occurred naturally years ago.”

Many stands have reached 2,000 trees per acre. Stunted from overcrowding and competition for water, many of the little trees are 80 years old with thick bark that resists low-intensity flames. By contrast, in pre-settlement forest the saplings were 20 years old and thin-barked, which means they burned readily in a low-intensity fire. Few ever survived to become fire-resistant, old growth trees – widely spaced at 50 trees per acre and living to 600 or 800 years.

Old growth Ponderosa pine

Pre-settlement ponderosa pine forests wrer characterized by as few as 50 trees per acre, and frequent natural low-intensity fires. Forest managers are now seeking to replicate thos conditions with thinning and managed fire.

As a result, “one fire does not correct problems associated with more than 100 years of fire exclusion, especially as it applies to thinning,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers noted that “much has been learned within the last 50 years about the use of fire in the Southwest. Many fire experts have developed their skills, learning from failures as well as success. This type of knowledge is difficult to pass on to less experienced individuals.”

The researchers said the best time to burn remains mid-September on into December, although this poses problems with smoke. The cold, dry air can create a cap that traps smoke close to the ground. The most effective fires occur on days with a temperature between 50 and 75 degrees and with fuels containing 9 to 12 percent moisture and humidity below 40 percent.

Ideally, wind speeds should be 3-8 miles an hour – but if they rise to 10 miles an hour the fire becomes erratic. Most controlled burns need to move uphill to burn hot enough to do any good – but that again poses a control problem.

Moreover, even a successful controlled burn will require follow-up burns. Initially, those burns should come every three years. But once the decades of downed wood has burned off and tree densities have been dramatically reduced, the “maintenance burns” can come every seven years or so.

The bottom line: We’re must learn to live with fire. It will take years of calculated risks, irritating smoke and the annual possibility of disaster to fix a problem a century in the making.

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

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

(7) comments


This is bullshit. We don't have to put up with anything. Start logging and grazing you SOBS!


Someone once called fall “real estate season” in the White Mountains, so the repercussions for home values and tourism of this September to December burning is almost incomprehensible. There are a lot of studies that show the high economic cost of air pollution. The link below is to one specifically about wildfire smoke and it found that, “US adults are willing to pay $373 to avoid one day of wildfire smoke over their county of residence within a six month period.” That’s ONE DAY of smoke, and this and earlier articles talk about MONTHS of regular wildfires, “managed” wildfires and “controlled” burns.


Theere is nothing which will stop these burners... they have been doing it for 50 years and it has not impeded any fires since... it just make payments on new Tundras at Chas Hatch... I am moving to Gallup or Grants and have found it very enjoyable to be able to go outside to work, relax and get a breath of fresh air... the homes are very reasonable, and they both have newer can have animals around and don't have to worry about getting out to get your can sleep with the windows open... and when you call the Cibola Forest they have

three people call you back in 10 minutes wanting to help... need to another plan because its not getting any better....


In addition to authorized burns we really need to start harvesting timber and collecting the 'duff', the one needles on the ground as well. This fuel would keep the power plants burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil online and perhaps reduce the levels of air pollution as well. This is what we need to do because thinning the forests would reduce the dangers of wildfire. That is what we need to worry about.


Skall, sorry that the smoke of iratates you so much. Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s there was a lot more burning and smoke going on in the White Mountains. So why did this area grow so fast during those time periods? Seems the anti burning folks just can't accept the science and history of our fire dependent ecosytem we live in.


When we moved to Arizona in the 2000’s we asked a resident who had lived here a long time how often the area got smoke and the answer was very seldom. That was true for several years, but then about five years ago it began to increase dramatically. I saw in another newspaper that the increase has been within the last 10 years. Also, the “reporter’s” phrase “irritating smoke” shows his total bias on this subject. Please see the research references given in the readers’ comments under his last Plumes of Smoke article for actual facts about the deadly health effects of smoke.

Informed Consent

Riser, the smoke does not just irritate people, it shortens the lives of people with heart, lung, stroke, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases. That word "shorten" means that they die before before necessary. This is all a polite way of saying that the SMOKE KILLS people. Our choices are not between burning up in a wildfire or being killed by smoke pollution. We could use a multitude of strategies, such as changing our out dated log export laws so that we can have a viable market for these small diameter/low value trees. You can denegrate this suffering as much as you like, but this issue will not go away. It is not natural for people to be willing to die without a fight. On the same note of saving human lives, I would like us to scrap the idea of going to mars and use that NASA money to invent a particulate respirator that is practical and effective for our firefighters. All human life is precious and no less so for the brave fire fighters that we depend on.

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