I have attended several meetings in recent weeks discussing the potential for wildfire in our area this year. So far, the year looks promising, but I want to caution you against complacency. We have had a wet winter, wet enough that it delayed the start of wildfire season. In recent years we have seen wildfires begin as early as February, but this year’s moisture held that off until at least now. We are beginning to see conditions more consistent with “fire season” and have already begun to see small road-side fires as well as other small wildfires.
We must understand that our problem is not a weather problem as much as it is a fuels problem. The weather has not changed significantly to increase, nor reduce, the threat of wildfire in the White Mountains. So, what has changed? In the past 20 years or so we have seen more, larger, catastrophic fires in the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona than we ever experienced in history. The primary cause of this increase in fire risk is the fuel that is available to burn; and a wet winter only means more fuel, in the form of grasses and other ground cover, to carry fire when it starts.
The high desert, ponderosa pine forests in Arizona are fire dependent ecosystems. They rely on fire to periodically remove the dead fuel, weak trees, and ground litter. Over the last 80-100 years, we have worked to eliminate fire from this ecosystem and the results have been devastating. In the pre-settlement period, when the forest thrived under natural conditions, it was common that there were as few as 80 trees per acre. Today you can find forested acreage with as many as 800-1000 trees. That means that our forests are overgrown by a factor of 10.
There are historical accounts that verify the information above. These records describe, or through pictures show, a forest with fewer trees but those trees were larger, healthier, and more fire resistant. There are accounts of being able to ride a horse at a gallop through the forest. This indicates something about the spacing of the trees and the absence of lower branches. Pictures show certain areas over the course of several decades where the earlier images show wide open spaces and abundant water. The later images show dried up water holes with trees so thick you can barely see the previous water holes.
Before we start pointing the finger at who is responsible for these conditions, I beg you to look at your own property. The facts are that the tribal lands have been treated aggressively in the past two decades. Likewise, public lands, both State and Federal, have been treated as well, though there is still much work to be done. One of the greatest concerns is a fire that starts on private lands and grows quickly to become unmanageable and destroys several homes or business and potentially results in a large loss of life. This story played out in Paradise, California last year and it could easily happen here as well.
If you are interested in having your home evaluated for wildfire safety, please contact us and we will be happy to assist you. There are several inexpensive things that can be done to reduce the risk of wildfire on your property and there are also grants available to assist you in removing overgrowth and hazardous fuels from your property. These services are available to any of our residents at any time. Call Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District at (928) 537-5100, or your local fire department, to arrange a safety inspection at your home or business.
Thank you all for your assistance in keeping our community, our residents and our firefighters safe.
Bryan Savage is chief of Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District.