USA — Helplessness. That was the feeling firefighters like Paul Summerfelt remember at the start of the record-setting fire.
“You could just watch the cloud of smoke on the horizon,” Summerfelt said. “You knew it was coming and you knew it was bigger than you were going to be able to deal with.”
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor Jim Zornes remembers seeing smoke from 30 miles away.
“We knew we had a tiger by the tail but we didn’t know how big it was,” Zornes said. “I just almost fainted when we realized the potential for the fire. I thought, ‘surely not!'”
Both men are talking about two different half-million acre fires that have occurred in Arizona’s White Mountains during the last decade. Summerfelt is recalling the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire and Zornes, the 2011 Wallow Fire. Forest ecologist and Regents’ Professor Wally Covington, Ph.D., says we’ve entered an era of mega fires.
“Mega fires are huge, landscape-scale fires in excess of 100-thousand acres,” said Covington, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI) at Northern Arizona University. “We’re seeing this throughout the West, but Arizona is on the leading edge.”
Covington says mega fires are symptoms of an unhealthy forest caused by a century of actions — mostly fire suppression, and overgrazing during the late 1800s — that have changed the structure and function of ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer forests.
“We need to stop being surprised by the types of fires we’re having,” said Summerfelt, wildland fire management officer for the city of Flagstaff. “My first fire was on the North Kaibab and it was considered huge. It was 20 acres. A 20-acre fire now means nothing. So in those three-and-a-half decades in my career, I’ve been able to watch fire change in size and intensity to levels today that even a decade ago would have been unthinkable. And we’re not done breaking records.”
Covington says Arizona is set up for three more enormous crown fires across the Mogollon Rim that burn through the tops of old growth trees and can ignite spot fires as far as 3 miles ahead of the blaze. “There’s the Payson to Winslow corridor, the Sedona to Flagstaff corridor and the Prescott corridor. If we don’t get out in front of these and do restoration treatments, it’s just going to be a matter of time before we have three more major landscapes burn up.”
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, scientists, firefighters and natural resource managers are examining today’s forest conditions and reviewing lessons learned from the state’s two largest fires.
To compare, both fires were started by people on warm, dry, windy days.
“With the Wallow Fire, we knew we were in extreme conditions. We had fuel everywhere and our probability of ignition for any fire that hit the ground was 100 percent. With 62 mph wind gusts, it was blowing so hard it was tough to walk,” said Zornes.
Former Forest Service ranger and firefighter Jim Paxon, now Arizona Game and Fish Department spokesperson, describes the 468,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire as a plume-dominated fire.
“It was pretty much fuels related, fed by the millions of excess trees in our overcrowded forests. It had extremely high energy. When I started fighting fire in the late’60s we didn’t have these big columns of plumes that would build up, collapse in an explosion on the ground and create hurricane winds. This didn’t happen until the ’90s.”
As a result, 49 percent of the area in the Rodeo-Chediski Fire was considered severely burned. For the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire, that figure is 28 percent.
“It could take a couple hundred years for these forests to return back to what they were,” said Alpine District Ranger Rick Davalos. “Some of the severely burned area includes older growth trees.”
ERI researchers say crown fires that kill old growth trees also destroy critical wildlife habitat.
“The Mexican spotted owl is the biggest concern we have as an endangered species that we’re trying to help out,” Paxon said. “The Forest Service is under extreme pressure not to do any cutting around the nesting sites. So between the two fires we lost 20 percent of the Mexican spotted owl nests that exist in the world.”
In addition, heat from the Wallow Fire baked streams and killed aquatic life. Then floods, from monsoon rains after the fire, moved silt into rivers and lakes making matters worse.
“The problem with these fires is they remove so much of the vegetation they can create hydrophobic soils. The water won’t penetrate the soil. It runs across the surface so all that ash and sediment ends up in streams and rivers. In the Wallow Fire it ruined the habitat for the re-introduced Apache trout,” Covington said. “So, whether you look at fish or you look at birds or you look at mammals, the impact of these mega fires over the long haul is very negative.”
Since the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, in which 426 homes and structures were destroyed, there has been an increase in forest restoration efforts. Firefighters say these have saved homes. The Wallow Fire claimed 32 buildings, a number they say would have been much higher without the treatments.
“The research of Dr. Covington and the ERI had so much to do with this,” Paxon said. “We identified communities at risk — Nutrioso, Greer and Alpine — and started forest thinning away from the private lands and primarily in the direction the fire would come.”
But researchers and firefighters say typical forest health treatments are just dots on the landscape and are not enough to save forests.
“We herald the success of protecting towns like Greer. Firefighters were able to make a stand in the treatment areas when seemingly all was lost,” Summerfelt said. “But what does that mean long term when you look out the window and what you see is black? And the forest, except for the immediate vicinity of the community, is gone and they’re facing potential flooding issues, and tourism decline, and all of those damaging ecosystem effects that remain after the fire is out and the smoke is gone.”
The answer, say researchers, are landscape-scale forest restoration treatments. These would require removing the excess trees and returning natural, surface fire to the ecosystem on the same scale and pace as today’s enormous crown fires. This can cost $500 to $1,000 an acre. Money, that some say, just isn’t there. However, researchers say we’re already spending that and more to fight and recover from mega fires.
“The true costs of these fires can be many times the suppression costs,” said Covington. “Additional costs include lost property, lost tax revenues, destroyed critical habitat and watershed impairment, among other things.”
ERI research states the ratio of the full cost of recovering from the Rodeo-Chediski Fire is almost seven dollars for every one dollar spent on suppression.
“It’s much better to do prevention, like in medicine,” Covington said. “You don’t want to wait until someone ends up in the emergency room. And in the case of the Wallow Fire, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire or the Schultz Fire, we’ve let the patient get into the emergency room.”
Meanwhile, the threat of mega fires continues to grow. “Knowing the fuel loads that are out there, we’re going to have catastrophic fires in the future,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Arthur “Butch” Blazer.
“We are dryer than last year in some parts of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests,” Zornes said, “as much as two to five weeks dryer.”
As fire season in the Southwest has begun, firefighters like Summerfelt are ready to be called.