Bagnal Fire skyline

Smoke from the Bagnal Fire located on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near Show Low tarnished the skyline as it grew to 1,000 acres. The fire began from a lightning-strike but was allowed to burn as a low-intensity resource-management fire.

WHITE MOUNTAINS — As fall deepens, the Forest Service is rushing to burn as much forest as it can manage.

That gives a whole new twist to the image of Smokey Bear. It’s gone from “Only you can prevent wildfires,” to something like “only you can learn to live with fire.”

The shift has big implications for building codes and risk management approaches for every community in the ponderosa pine forests. It’s now clear that preventing disasters like the Camp Fire in Paradise, California or another Rodeo-Chediski blaze will require forested communities to adapt to both the frightening wildfire season of June and controlled burns and managed fires burning right up to the edge of town for four or six months a year.

In fact, the Forest Service’s embrace of managed fires demonstrates the revolution in its approach to forest management and restoration and preventing catastrophic wildfires.

Bagnal Fire ground creep

The Bagnal Fire was safely maintained as a large, low-intensity managed fire within a mile of the city limits of Show Low this past August. The heavy smoke from the fire and proximity to residential areas put many people on edge.

The thick columns of smoke rising from a host of managed fires and controlled burns has made residents nervous all across the state – including the White Mountains.

Last week the Forest Service was burning some 2,600 acres on the Black Mesa Ranger District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Springerville. The columns of smoke were visible from Forest Lakes, Heber/Overgaard and Winslow. The Forest Service teamed with Arizona Game and Fish and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to plan and manage that burn, which will likely run through Oct. 18.

“Prescribed burning provides many benefits and is essential to maintaining healthy forest ecosystems,” the Forest Service said this week in a release about the fire. “This prescribed fire is a follow-up to previous mechanical treatments within parts of the unit. It provides habitat diversity, recycles plant nutrients into the soil and encourages new growth for a variety of plants used by wildlife and livestock. Prescribed burning of forest ground fuels also reduces the threat of large-scale wildfire impacts to private lands.”

Research has demonstrated that such fires must become a matter of routine in order to restore the forest and prevent unnatural, catastrophic, high-intensity fires. However, that’s proving difficult for two reasons. First, the explosion of development in forested areas has made it much more difficult to burn large tracts of forest safely. Secondly, the dangerous accumulation of fuels during a misguided century of fire suppression means the forest must survive two or three low-intensity managed fires before wildfires can safely return to their historic role in thinning tree thickets, enriching the soil and regulating the ecosystem of the ponderosa pine forests.

A 30-year education

A survey by the Forest Service’s Southwest Research Center demonstrated the complexity of the lessons learned from 30 years of experimentation with prescribed fires. The forest managers on the White Mountains Apache Reservation led the way in the 1950s, repeatedly setting large-scale burns that covered thousands of acres. Those fires have maintained a much healthier forest than in many other areas of the state, concluded the researchers, including Stephen Sackett, Sally Haase and Michael Harrington.

The researchers said that a century of fire suppression and cattle grazing have greatly complicated the task of forest managers seeking to return fire to its historic role in the ponderosa pine forest of the Southwest.

Many areas of the forest now have 2,000 small trees per acre. Those trees are actually some 80 years old in many cases, which means they have thick bark and won’t burn easily in a low-intensity fire. However, in a high-intensity fire, they not only burn fiercely but torch the lower limbs of the even older trees above them. In addition, across some four million acres, perhaps 50 tons of dead and downed wood has accumulated per acre. That means low-intensity fires have a hard time consuming all the downed fuel and high-intensity fires burn so hot they sterilize the soil.

10-15 Black Mesa RX burns

The Apapche-Sitgreaves national Forests are currently conducting numerous prescribed burns.

As a result, using fire to thin out millions of acres of poses a complicated challenge. Forest managers must very carefully conduct two or three burns to return the forest to normal conditions – and then ensure new fires burn through the area roughly once every three years for several more cycles. Only after repeated fire treatments can managers return fire to its normal frequency – roughly once every seven years, concluded the researchers.

That has huge implications for forested communities.

Many forest residents assume they just have to dodge the bullet of mega-fires like the Rodeo Chediski once every 20 or 40 years. Otherwise, they hope thinning projects like the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative will thin the forest and eliminate the threat of wildfires.

10-15 Wallow West RX burn

However, the latest research shows communities must adapt to frequent nearby fires – including prescribed fires that can get out of control if conditions shift rapidly. For instance, after the Forest Service launched several prescribed fires last week, temperatures rose and winds kicked up – making them much more difficult to manage. The widespread use of prescribed fires inevitably poses a risk that some of those fires will escape control.

So communities like Show Low, Vernon, Pinetop and others must accept the risk that nearby fires will regularly approach the town limits – and sometimes scatter windborne embers across town. However, most have not adopted either effective Firewise brush-clearing projects or Wildlands-Urban-Interface (WUI) building codes.

So don’t be frightened this week when you see smoke on the horizon.

But take it as a warning.

One way or another – the fire’s coming.

(Stay tuned for a story on what the experts have learned about prescribed fires from the White Mountain Apache Reservation’s management as well as decades of trial and error.)

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

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

(10) comments

skall

The burn, reburn, and then burn again approach makes for some odd headlines. On August 28, 2019, the Prescott Daily Courier declared, “Firefighters help Sheridan Fire exceed 13,000 acres.” What???



Not at all amusing is a summary of a new study that appeared on August 22, 2019, in the New England Journal of Medicine. A headline states, “Bad air days are even deadlier than we thought: A global study finds that particulate matter in the air can increase the risk of death EVEN AT LOW LEVELS AND WITH BRIEF EXPOSURES.” [my caps]



The New York Times reports that the study shows, “In the United States, there was a daily mortality increase of 0.79 percent for each 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in PM 10 and a 1.58 percent increase for each 10 microgram increase in PM 2.5 [the kind found in smoke]. This would translate to an extra 178 deaths on a day when levels of these pollutants increased by these amounts.”


longtimeresident

Ok, we get it and understand how you feel about the fires. Many of us prefer the long overdue catch up attempts to return the forests to a more natural state while reducing the potential for catastrophic fires.


2rusty

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Tired

Well said skall.

Informed Consent

The FS says that we must learn to live with ever increasing levels of smoke in our air in order to save the forest. Let's look at that statement. Who made them czar of public health policy? Who gave them the right to run up the health care costs of our citizens and shorten the life of people with heart, lung, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases? Know anyone with one of those conditions? Perhaps you have one. Are you willing to die an early death for this noble cause that the FS has constructed for you? And as far as saving the forests, the FS harvested the old growth trees for a century wholesale across the SW opening up the canopy everywhere so that the ponderosa pine seedlings could receive sunlight on the forest floor that would normally would have remained stunted. That poor management decision led to the thicket of 80 year old small diameter trees referred to in this article. Instead of looking at our outdated log export laws that prohibit the export of small diameter low value trees in their unmilled form to the orient where they could use them, the FS decides to put all their efforts into brainwashing the public that the only way out of this mess is to burn them and, thus, shorten your life with smoke. I'd like to talk to Mr. Aleshire in 5 years when he is sucking on an oxygen tank after being diagnosed with COPD and see if he still such a zealot. My response to the FS when they say we have to pay for their poor management decisions is, WHO SAYS? Years ago the FS said ,in all reality, they will burn only as much as the public is willing to tolerate. They are continually giving us the fraudulent either or choice. Either we let them burn carte blanche or our towns will burn to the ground. OH. by the way, we may accidentally burn your towns to the ground also. According to the FS, we just need to be enlightened as to what common sense is.




Tired

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Citizen Scientist

Apparently, Smoky Bear is now defined as a drip torch carrying fire starter that enjoys watching his fires escaping control into a high intensity wave of flames rolling toward the nearest city/town and delighting in the grand finale of seeing red glowing embers cascading down upon the buildings. Where is Smoky Bear and who are you?







Mr. Aleshire and the Forest Service teamed up to scare and threaten the public into submission in order to complete an agenda that seriously harms the health and wellbeing of everyone living in this area. Breathing continuous smoke pollution of this intensity is equivalent to smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day. Now recall Phillip Morris's behavior and lies that covered up the dangers of smoking and how all of that turned out for them.







If you value your health, wellbeing and safety, please consider filing a complaint regarding the unprecedented smoke by calling or e-mailing the following:



Arizona Dept. of Environmental Quality (ADEQ)-Air Quality Div./Smoke Management (602) 771-4834



Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor (928) 333-6280 or the ranger districts where the burns are occurring. Alpine Ranger Dist. (928) 339-5000, Black Mesa Ranger Dist. (928) 535-7300, Clifton Ranger Dist. (928) 687-8600, Lakeside Ranger Dist. (928) 368-2100, and Springerville Ranger Dist. (928) 333-6200.


Tired

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skall

A person in the medical profession suggests people tell their doctor they want it placed on their patient chart that they’ve been exposed to smoke from controlled burns. That will help guide any current and also possible future medical treatment.



Also, when the lawsuits start, it might help your case. The chemicals in smoke not only instigate but also exasperate heart and lung disease, and can also cause cancer. So, even if at this time you don’t think the smoke is harming you, please take the time to show your medical provider the study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine (mentioned in a comment above), and insist your exposure be placed on your chart.



Here’s a link to the study: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1817364#article_comments


Riser

All of these complainers of the smoke from good forest management reminds of the early 90's. That's when a vocal minority got timber sales shut down along with Pulpwood sales which is partially to blame for the devastating fires we have seen of late. Hope this latest group fails. Support logging, thinning and burning for a healthy forest and protected communities.

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