Arizona forest-restoration afoot after tough 2 years

Arizona forest-restoration afoot after tough 2 years

24 March 2012

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USA — It was a summer afternoon in 2010 when Randie Wareham looked up at Schultz Peak from her home near the base of the mountain where a fire that torched more than 15,000 acres had recently been extinguished.

What she saw struck her with terror: an avalanche of mud flowing down the mountainside north of Flagstaff. As it rumbled into her neighborhood, it brought with it a destructive stew of ash, tree stumps, wood chunks, fences — anything that stood in its way. Then, a flash flood wiped away everything in her home except a few photo frames placed on the highest shelves.

Wareham and her family survived the flood that decimated their home. But they never moved back. And with fire season drawing near, she can’t help but think about the unwitting risks Arizonans face in areas where the potential for catastrophic fire and subsequent flooding are a constant source of danger.

“We’re going to be OK, we’re going to move on,” said Wareham, whose family recently moved into a Flagstaff rental home. “But we just think about our friends and their children. We just want them to be safe. … I think about them all the time, especially when the season comes and it starts flooding again.”
A difficult two years

The past two fire seasons devastated parts of the state after low humidity and heavy winds created tinderbox conditions that fanned flames through Arizona’s forests and wildlands, some bordering sizable communities.

Last year alone, more than 20,000 residents were displaced as homes, cabins and businesses were evacuated in the paths of five separate fires of more than 10,000 acres apiece. Among the most damaging in the past two years were:

Last year’s record-setting Wallow Fire, the state’s largest ever on record, which burned 538,049 acres near Springerville and Eagar in eastern Arizona. To stabilize the burn area, a massive reforestation and rehabilitation process costing $29 million took place after the fire and through last fall, said Pamela Baltimore, public-affairs officer for Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

A second monster blaze in 2011, the Horseshoe Two Fire, was the state’s fourth-largest ever, burning 222,954 acres near the New Mexico border in southeastern Arizona. About 5,000 acres have been reseeded, many areas have been mulched, and officials continue to rebuild about 350 miles of burned fences, said Ruben Morales, fire-management officer at the Douglas Ranger District.

The Monument Fire scorched 30,526 acres south of Sierra Vista, consuming 57 homes before its containment. Mulching and aerial seeding was completed on the most severely burned 1,502 acres within two months of the fire being extinguished, said Marylee Peterson, Coronado National Forest information officer. The goal: to prevent flooding and dangerous erosion along the eastern flanks of the Huachuca Mountains.

The fire that tore through Schultz Pass created a waxy layer of soil from burned plants, resins, oils and sap — a smooth surface down which monsoon rains careened just days later, creating havoc in residential areas at the base of the mountain and drowning a 12-year-old girl. Reseeding efforts continue in a bid to restore vegetation and protect communities against more flooding.
Weather changes may come

Last year’s combination of consistently high winds and extremely dry weather were blamed for the rash of large blazes that moved quickly through forests and grasslands, destroying a total of 981,748 acres.

Weather patterns are not expected to be as consistent this year, which could lead to a less severe fire season than last year, said Chuck Maxwell, predictive-services meteorologist at the Southwest Coordination Center, which coordinates firefighting resources through a dozen federal and state agency dispatch centers. The biggest fire seasons have happened when weather conditions were consistent, like last year — one of the windiest and driest patterns Arizona has seen, he said.

This winter was dry, with severe drought in portions of western and northern Arizona. This spring and early summer are expected to be hotter and drier but less windy than 2011.

That change from last year is partially because of a shift from La Niña to El Niño weather patterns. La Niña typically is dry, warm and windy, and El Niño typically is less windy and warmer with more rain, Maxwell said. That shift is expected to create inconsistent weather patterns this spring and early summer, which could bring precipitation, such as the winter storm last weekend in the north country, Maxwell said. That means there could be some green grass growing this spring, which would mitigate fire danger in early summer, he said.

Several key factors can affect fire season, which typically runs from May through July, before the monsoon brings needed moisture. Among them are drought, seasonal temperatures, precipitation, weather patterns through the spring and early summer, and the conditions of grasses that would burn in a fire.
Restoration efforts continue

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests already have undertaken major treatment efforts following the historic Wallow Fire. The forest hired about 300 temporary workers to remove 289 miles of hazardous trees, build 189 miles of forest roads for better access, and mulch about 90,000 acres. Roughly 3,000 semi-loads of timber were removed and about 73,000 tons of straw were airlifted and dropped into the burn area.

With predictions of a dry and active fire season in northern Arizona and western New Mexico, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests will continue monitoring and treating the burn area, Baltimore said. Upcoming efforts include weed monitoring and treatment, trail and road stabilization, and researching potential reseeding.

“It looks like we’re going to have continued drought in northeastern Arizona,” Baltimore said. “And in this part of the country in the spring, the wind is just a part of the landscape.”

In southeast Arizona, potential flooding this monsoon season is a continuing concern, especially because of erosion in the northern Chiricahua Mountains, Morales said. Officials are trying to stabilize that area so that gravel and rocks do not flow down to the road during a flood, he said.

Coronado National Forest officials also are taking down burned and deteriorating trees leaning toward the road or campgrounds, Morales said. But he expects those trees to be an ongoing issue for a few years.
More moisture could help

Despite flood concerns, a moist spring could help Flagstaff’s Schultz Pass, where officials hope a new crop of seedlings can take root.

Through a continuing replanting effort, hundreds of orange cones are mounted on the ground among blackened trees in the most severely burned areas of the Schultz Pass. The cones provide a micro-climate for ponderosa-pine seedlings about the size of a human palm, protecting them from being eaten by animals, said Andy Stevenson, silviculturist for the Coconino National Forest.

Last weekend’s snowstorm should help some of those seedlings, as well as new ones that will be planted through a community-volunteer replanting project that kicks off next month, Stevenson said. Without additional moisture, any seedlings that are planted after mid-April will have a tough time surviving because it could prevent them from establishing roots into the ground, he said.

“I’m actually quite worried about whether the seedlings would grow if we don’t get moisture. … I’m afraid I’m going to lose a pretty good chunk of the seedlings,” Stevenson said. “Unless we plant, it’s going to take a very long time for the forest to recover.”

Trying to regrow damaged forests on the San Francisco Peaks has been a community effort. Students from two nearby middle and high schools last fall began planting the seedlings, which took a year to incubate at Northern Arizona University’s greenhouse.

The forest ground now has straw mulches and weeds. Rocks and boulders have moved around after the flood. Stevenson said he hopes those changes have broken up the waxy hydrophobic layer that formed after the fire.

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors this month signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to pay $225,000 to figure out a long-term way to prevent future flooding for the most vulnerable areas near the San Francisco Peaks.

Wareham, her husband and 7-year-old daughter, meanwhile, are piecing their lives back together after the flood. Wareham said her daughter now talks about wanting to be a geologist and hydrologist, and is “really interested in the way the Earth changes from natural disasters.”

“That was our forever-house. We loved living there. We loved our neighbors, and we still love our neighbors,” Wareham said. “It’s just crazy, because it’s not over. It (flooding) is just going to keep happening and happening and happening.”

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