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FYI

Payson Ranger District Tonto National Forest USDA Forest Service 1009 E. Hwy. 260 Payson, Arizona 85541 (928) 474-7992

Contact: Gary Roberts

June 2007

A Sobering Wildfire Glance at Mogollon Rim Country and the Nation

  • On average since 1960, more than 133,000 wildfires each year in America blacken and char valuable forests and grasslands. Many animals and structures are destroyed and an average of 29 people are killed. Nationally, about 90 percent of wildfires are caused by human carelessness.
  • According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), more than 48 million acres have been blackened by wildfire across the nation from 2000 through 2006. That’s more acres burned during any seven-year period since 1960. The year 2006 saw 9,873,745 acres darkened by wildfire, making it the most acres burned in a single year in the 47-year period since 1960.
  • It was a record-setting year in 2005 for most acreage burned in Arizona. Wildfires in the state blackened and charred about 730,000 acres, surpassing the nearly 630,000 acres that were torched in 2002. That was a year in which Arizona experienced the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the largest wild land blaze in state history at 469,000 acres.
  • More than 375,000 acres burned in 2005 on the Tonto National Forest alone. All of Arizona’s four largest wildfires in recorded history have occurred since 2000, cumulatively burning more than 920,000 acres. The Cave Creek Complex consumed 248, 310 acres, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned 469,000 acres, the Willow Fire burned 119,500 acres, and the Aspen Fire burned 84,750 acres. By comparison, the Dude Fire of 1990 (the largest fire in state history up until that point) burned 24,000 acres. The Capitan Gap Fire, that Smokey Bear was rescued from in New Mexico in 1950, was 17,000 acres. Considered large fires in their day, they seem diminutive by today’s fiery standards.
  • Most will remember 1988 as a big fire year in America as wildfire raced through historic and beloved stands of timber in Yellowstone. The big fire year of 1988, however, has been followed by more big fire years – 1994 and 1996.
  • In 2000, a modern record was established for most acres burned in the West since accurate record-keeping began in 1916. A whopping 8,422,437 acres were burned and suppression costs spiraled to $1.3 billion. The national level of wildfire preparedness and response rose to the highest level possible five weeks earlier than ever before and remained at that extremely high level of preparedness for a record-setting 62 days.
  • Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon experienced their largest individual fires on record in 2002.
  • California reeled and staggered in 2003 as 770,000 acres were scorched by wild land blazes.
  • -more-
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Sobering Wildfire Glance/Roberts-2

  • Before many people lived in the woods, wildfire played an integral role in forest health. Lightning-induced wildfire burned debris on the forest floor and removed dead and dying trees. Low-intensity fires kept the forest clean and healthy.
  • America’s forests, especially in the interior West, are at grave risk. Despite the best intentions of the past, the U.S. Forest Service and many segments of American society have made some big mistakes. Aggressive suppression of all wildfires during the latter half of the 20th century has resulted, in many cases, in thicker, denser stands of thinner, smaller trees where disease and insect attack are all too common.
  • Established in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service suppressed wildfire to protect life and natural resources. Fire suppression, although necessary, interrupted the natural cycle of wildfire in North American ecosystems. Additionally, heavy pine cone crops early in the 20th century were not thinned naturally by fire due to livestock grazing that removed grasses necessary for carrying low-intensity wildfires. The aforementioned factors contributed to American forests becoming crowded and unhealthy.
  • Overly dense forests invite disease and insect attacks and can fuel catastrophic wildfires. Forests managed with selective thinning and prescribed fire can help restore forests to prior historical levels of health, vigor, diversity, and sustainable conditions.
  • According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Government Accounting Office, and forestry scientists, an estimated 73 million acres of national forests are on the verge of ecological collapse. Of all the contributing factors to this unhealthy condition, NONE looms larger than the fact that far too many trees crowd our forests vying for too few resources.
  • Forests in the American Southwest 100 to 150 years ago, depending on location, carried, on average, as few as three to as many as 25 trees per acre. Today, forests in the Southwest may carry up to several thousand trees per acre and can be several hundred times more dense than a century or more ago. The moisture, nutrient reserves, and growing space needed to sustain the explosive growth of the past 85 years or so, does not exist in Southwestern forests – and it never has.
  • Healthy and dynamic forest ecosystems, as well as many plant and animal species, are dependent on fire to create precise conditions for them to survive and flourish.
  • There are three primary factors that prevent us from utilizing fire as a management tool more frequently.
  • 1. Prolonged drought throughout many areas in the nation elevates our risk. When fire indexes are extreme, the Forest Service usually decides to suppress fires that we might otherwise use to restore ecosystems when indexes are lower.
  • 2. The risks are compounded by the ever-expanding wild land/urban interface. Imagine an island of combustible fuel (homes and cabins) butting up against a sea of combustible vegetation. We use fire only with acceptable limits of economic, ecological, and social risk. We aggressively suppress wildfires when it is likely they will threaten lives, homes, and property and/or would severely destroy habitat for endangered species or damage vital soil and watersheds.
  • 3. Ponderosa pine in the West are among those forests that need fire the most, but often are in no condition to burn. Increased tree density equals increased catastrophic wildfire risk. Allowing nature to run its course by simply letting fires burn without restraint could have far-reaching devastating effects on communities and ecosystems alike.
  • -more-
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Sobering Wildfire Glance/Roberts-3

  • Prescribed or RX fire is an effective management tool used to regulate heavy fuel loads and to create healthier forests. The growth, rate of fire spread, and smoke from a prescribed fire are closely monitored. Aggressive suppression actions are taken if the fire displays behavior that does not meet resource management objectives.
  • RX fire gives land managers the important option of burning under the right conditions, allowing protection of valuable natural and cultural resources, and diminishing danger to the public and firefighters. RX fire can reduce years of dangerous fuel accumulation and decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
  • Prescribed fire is an old concept applied with current research and technology. RX fire has been used nationwide by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies for over 40 years. Between 1996 and 2000, over 31,000 prescribed fires were used to treat nearly eight million acres of land. Of these intentionally ignited fires, only one-half of one percent escaped their specified burn unit boundaries. Prescribed or RX fire is a calculated and managed risk. Heavy fuel loads and overly dense and decadent forests, by comparison, create unhealthy conditions that are exponentially far riskier for the occurrence of catastrophic wildfire.
  • Fire is a valuable process for recycling dead biomass in the arid West where natural decomposition rates are extremely slow. Historical photos that have been taken in the same location over a period of time have shown untreated wooden fence posts still intact after 100 years.
  • Warmer temperatures appear to be increasing the intensity and duration of wildfire seasons in the western United States. Since 1986, longer summers with warmer temperatures have resulted in a stunning four-fold increase of major wildfires and a six-fold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.
  • The length of active wildfire season (when fires are actually burning) in the western United States has increased an extra 78 days. Also, the average burn duration of large wildfires has increased from an average of 7.5 days to 37.1 days.
  • In the western United States, 75 percent of annual stream-flow comes from snow pack. Snow pack is essential for keeping fire danger low in our arid forests until the spring melt period ends. Once snowmelt is complete, forests in the western U.S. can become combustible within one month due to low relative humidity and sparse summer rainfall. Hydrology research indicates that snow packs are currently melting one to four weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago. Stream-flows also peak earlier. According to one study that covered a 34-year period, early snowmelt that resulted in longer, drier summers experienced five times as many wildfires compared to years with late snowmelt.
  • Four decisive factors are combining to produce an observed increase in wildfires: (1) earlier snowmelt (2) higher temperatures in summer (3) a longer fire season (4) an expanded area of high-elevation forests that are vulnerable.
  • About 1993, researchers who study tree rings made a connection between climate change and wildfire. They were able to show that widespread wildfires in the Southwest have ignited consistently over the past 300 to 400 years. Those wildfires occurred roughly on the same schedule as our planet’s El Nino/La Nina weather cycle.
  • -more-
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Sobering Wildfire Glance/ Roberts-4

  • Paleo-ecologists looking back thousands of years in time are discovering that widespread wildfires have occurred during warmer, drier periods in the Northern Rockies and the Northwest of America.
  • When a catastrophic wildfire denudes an entire slope, it can cause massive erosion that leaves revealing deposits of sediment and charcoal fragments at the bottom of the incline. The debris flow creates a fan-shaped deposit called an alluvial fan. Geomorphology scientists have used alluvial fans to link climate change to catastrophic wildfires. The science of geomorphology has shown that lodge pole pine forests in Yellowstone National Park have experienced catastrophic wildfires in sync with long-term shifts in climate. Those forests experienced large flare-ups during the Medieval Warm Period (roughly 900 to 1200 A.D.). It is interesting to note that during that period, tree lines rose in elevation, lakes receded, and parts of the West were gripped by prolonged drought.
  • Overly dense and decadent forests can fuel catastrophic wildfires. However, as we can see, when climate shifts to warmer and drier, catastrophic wildfires increase regardless. Research shows that climate naturally swings back and forth on a fairly predictable rhythm. Much of the West has grappled with drought for about a decade. The drought is spreading and now covers more than one-third of the continental U.S. Currently, much of the West is in another warming trend. It is possible this climate shift is compounded by industrial emissions of “greenhouse” gases.
  • Wildfires roughly add an estimated 40 percent of fossil fuel atmospheric carbon emissions each year. If climate change is increasing wildfire activity as research and observation suggest, these current sources of carbon emissions will accelerate the escalation of “greenhouse” gases.
  • In 2001, the Payson Ranger District in the Tonto National Forest began implementation of a long-range, far-reaching, landscape-scale, three-pronged fuels reduction strategy.The achievable goal is to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger in the wild land/urban interface, to initiate the restoration of natural ecological systems, and to develop and foster sustainable forest conditions.
  • Since our plan’s inception, we have successfully thinned more than 8,000 acres on difficult, critical, high priority acres on lands adjacent to communities throughout our district. Additionally, we have treated more than 20,000 acres with prescribed fire. We partnered to open five brush disposal pits for area residents and property owners. As a strategic start to reduce the threat of wildfire to the wild land/urban interface in Rim country, we created a 330-feet wide fuel break completely around the communities of Pine and Strawberry. In fall of 2004, we burned about 33,000 vegetative debris piles (weighing a half-a-ton to a ton-and-a-half each) scattered throughout the Payson Ranger District.
  • We have employed nature’s firefighters in the Oxbow area south of Payson to reduce live fuel loading in the chaparral vegetation type. What began as a pilot program of 185 goats in April of 2004, ultimately grew to utilize 1,100 live vegetation browsers. It is an unorthodox way to pre-treat an area without the impact of smoke. And it is just one strategy in our district “toolbox” that we employed to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger.
  • Early in 2005, we were privileged to give a presentation in Albuquerque about our Payson Goat Grazing Project at the Quivira Coalition’s “Half Public, Half Private, One West” conference. The Quivira Coalition was assembled in New Mexico to provide a positive and non-threatening forum for ranchers, environmental groups, and federal and state agencies to discuss land management issues and work toward collaborative solutions.
  • -more-
slide5

Sobering Wildfire Glance/ Roberts-5

  • Our vision for the immediate short-term is to reduce heavy fuel loads in the wild land/urban interface. We would like to thin 5,000 acres per year on critical, high priority acreage in the immediate years ahead. If this critical acreage is thinned, it will substantially move these areas out of harm’s way.
  • With the Verde, Payson, Lion, Pine/Strawberry, and Manaco environmental analyses (EAs) completed, the Payson Ranger District (as of March 2007) has 34,200 acres ready and available for thinning, 117,597 acres ready and available for first-entry prescribed burning, and 9,552 acres ready and available for prescribed maintenance burning. We have jumped through all the legal hoops and all of the required paperwork is in order and ready, but a constant concern is sustained funding for these projects. The Christopher/Hunter analysis area is 24,288 acres.
  • We are doing all we can on our district to make our vision for substantially reducing wildfire danger in the wild land/urban interface a reality. It’s a problem we can fix. It needs to be tackled. It must be done! Our success could become a much-needed model program for other districts and forests across the nation to adopt and emulate.
  • Now that we know that wildfire played a vital role in North American ecosystem health for centuries, is America’s beloved legend Smokey Bear still relevant? Consider the facts and decide for yourself. Smokey never said we shouldn’t conduct prescribed burns or thin our forests, nor did he say that we should suppress all wildfires. Smokey’s message has alwaysbeen to discourage human carelessness with fire, not to exclude all fire.
  • Smokey Bear has one of the best records ever achieved by an advertising symbol for communication effectiveness. Did we listen? The record speaks for itself. In 1992, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that wildfires caused by human carelessness decreased by 50 percent since Smokey’s campaign began in 1944, even though people visiting our public lands increased ten-fold since the 1940s. And even though the Forest Service can use prescribed fire as an effective management tool for restoring vigor, health, and diversity to our forests, Smokey’s message about human carelessness with fire is just as timely today as it was in 1944. The need for land managers to utilize prescribed fire can live comfortably beside Smokey’s message about fire prevention. Human carelessness will never be an acceptable cause of fire. We will always need to heed Smokey Bear.
  • The leading cause of human-caused fires on public lands is abandoned campfires. Never leave a campfire unattended for even a moment until you’re sure it’s cool to the touch. It’s as easy as one, two, three. You see, it really doesn’t take much to make sure your campfire is cool to the touch!
  • 1. Pour water on your campfire. 2. Stir your campfire with a shovel. 3. Repeat steps one and two until your campfire is cool to the touch.
  • Fire Wise Tip: DO NOT bury your fire with dirt, sand, or gravel. The buried fuel can smolder undetected for a long time and break free later to cause a fire. Feeding full-length logs into your campfire is not fire wise and is never allowed. Your firewood should always fit carefully within the safety of your fire ring.
  • If you have a home or property in the wild land/urban interface (a place where combustible vegetation meets combustible homes and cabins), each fire season you are at risk. The best way to fight fire is before smoke is on the horizon. Each of us must take personal responsibility for safely co-existing in an environment and landscape that historically has been shaped by wildfire for thousands of years.
  • -more-
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Sobering Wildfire Glance/Roberts-6

  • With the seclusion and ambience of a home in the forest comes the risk of living in a home that is surrounded by combustible vegetation. The proactive steps taken by you before a wildfire occurs (such as creating defensible space or using fire-resistive landscaping) is of paramount importance.
  • Record-setting wildfires across the nation over the past few years serve as a sobering reminder to each of us that we must be extra careful with fire. Many national forests are at risk for wildfire due to prolonged drought, warmer temperatures, drier summers, longer fire seasons, and vegetative overcrowding.
  • Useful websites for wildfire information:
  • Fire Wise: www.firewise.org
  • Arizona Fire Information: www.azstatefire.com
  • Arizona Governor’s Forest Health Council: www.governor.state.az.us/FHC
  • National Incident Information Center: www.fs.fed.us/news/fire
  • National Fire Plan: www.fireplan.gov
  • Southwest Coordination Center: www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire
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