Arizona fire damage brings forests closer to collapse

Arizona fire damage brings forests closer to collapse

16 June 2012

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 USA – On a dry day in May 2002, Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull boarded a Blackhawk helicopter in Show Low with her forest and wildfire advisers and Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

As the chopper flew over the White Mountains, along the Mogollon Rim and on toward Flagstaff, Covington plotted out, with the help of a map and the Blackhawk’s window, five tracts of forest, each about 500,000 acres, mostly ponderosa pines in the higher elevations and piñon pines and juniper trees farther down the slopes.

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The first tract was near Show Low and Heber, spreading out onto the nearby White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation. Another was farther east toward Springerville, Greer and Alpine. A third stretched from Payson toward Winslow, a fourth surrounded Prescott, and one more climbed the Rim from Sedona to Flagstaff.

That’s where fires will burn in the next 20 or 30 years, Covington told Hull — big fires like Arizona has never seen. The forests were overgrown, the trees so close together that flames would race up the slopes, over the Rim and into the mountains for thousands of acres until the fuel ran out. The forests needed thinning, Covington argued. Hull, who owned a second home in the White Mountains, agreed and pledged help.

Barely a month later, on June 18, 2002, an out-of-work firefighter lit flames that within hours exploded into the Rodeo Fire and, inside of a week, merged with another to become the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. It raged across 468,638 acres around Show Low and Heber and deep into the Apache reservation, the largest fire on record at the time and almost precisely where Covington had predicted that a fire would erupt.

Nine years after that, the Wallow Fire scorched a record 538,049 acres around Springerville, Greer and Alpine, again within the boundaries Covington had identified from the chopper.

“Forty percent of what we looked at is burned now,” Covington said in May, as he looked at maps in his office at NAU. “The other 60 percent is sure as hell going to happen if we do nothing. In 30 years, I’m afraid we’re going to burn it all up.”

A decade after Rodeo-Chediski branded permanent scars into Arizona’s landscape, the state’s forests have edged closer to collapse, weakened by drought, insects, climate change and decades of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided management policies.

Fire has burned through one-quarter of the state’s ponderosa-pine and mixed-confier forests just in the past decade, leaving a blackened mosaic across 1 million acres. In all, nearly 4 million acres of Arizona’s forests, grasslands and deserts — an area slightly larger than Connecticut — have burned since 2002.

With the high country embrittled by drought again this year, forest managers hold their breath every time another fire flares, fearful that it will rage out of control and wipe out another stand of ponderosas. One monster fire every 10 years could burn through what’s left in a generation, transforming the landscape into that much less of what is uniquely Arizona.

But Rodeo-Chediski changed more than the land it scarred. Jolted by the scope of destruction after the fire, elected leaders, government agencies and community groups set aside decades of conflict and coalesced around a long-term plan to clear out the densest stands of trees and restore forests to health. With that sort of help, scientists believe the forests can recover over time.

The plan is not without obstacles. It is expensive and relies on an untested economic model. It still must operate amid lingering distrust in forest communities and among environmental groups. And another big wildfire could disrupt the work, a risk that turned real during the Wallow Fire last year.

The cost of failure is as steep as the pine-covered canyons at stake: forests that are an irresistible lure for tourists and desert dwellers and home to tens of thousands of people, trees that shelter a diverse array of wildlife and protect an irreplaceable source of water that fills the reservoirs above Phoenix. If the trees die, they may not return for thousands of years, if at all.

“I think we’re unified by the fear of the next fire,” said Marcus Selig, who works on forest issues for the Grand Canyon Trust, a group that has helped push the forest-thinning plan. “Fire is the driving factor. The fear of doing nothing, of letting forests remain on their present trajectory, is pretty darn scary.”

Ponderosas in peril

Nowhere are the threats more imminent and the damage from fire more jarring than among the ponderosa pines, the towering old trees that have become the enduring symbol of Arizona’s high country. Three million acres stretch from the Grand Canyon into the White Mountains, the largest contiguous ponderosa-pine forest in North America.

Over tens of thousands of years, ponderosas adapted to the dry extremes of Arizona. When moisture was abundant, the trees grew; when drought struck, they shut down, conserving resources. The trees survived the regular fires that swept the ground of debris and kept the forest from growing too dense by burning off the youngest seedlings.

What the ponderosas couldn’t adapt to was us. Settlers arrived in great numbers during the 1800s, and they brought livestock — cattle and sheep, mostly — and set them to graze among the pines.

Grazing is not by itself bad, forest experts say. Elk and deer have grazed among the ponderosas for centuries. But the livestock overgrazed the land, stripping the forest of the vegetation that had helped control the spread of pine seedlings, which would begin to grow as the livestock moved on.

With people living among the trees, the settlers also started suppressing fires, halting every blaze whether the result of lightning or people as far back as the early 1900s. It was that decision, a policy that persisted for decades and one founded on a desire to protect trees, that transformed the ponderosa forests into the tinderbox they are today, most experts agree.

“At that time, our understanding was fires were the enemy of the forest,” Covington said, “just as wolves and mountain lions were enemy of the deer herds. No one really realized at the time how important they were as self-regulatory mechanisms for the ecosystem.”

In the forests that the early settlers found, 25 or 30 ponderosa pines grew on an acre. A fire would burn low to the ground through the grasses, blackening the bases of the trees but almost never killing them. Even in larger fires, ponderosas recovered and regrew.

Today, the fire-protected forests are choked with 1,000 or more pines per acre. Flames can quickly reach the tops of the trees, where a blaze will spread rapidly, burn hotter and leave behind lifeless husks and bare ground.

Such a severe fire not only wipes out a complex ecosystem, it weakens the forest’s ability to protect the watershed. With no trees to anchor the soil, storms erode the ground, filling creeks and rivers with ash and sediment, affecting water quality and reducing water storage in smaller reservoirs.

And the forests may never return to what they were, which is why the worst fires are called “stand-replacing.” Scrub oak or manzanita may take over, preventing the pines from returning. On Mount Elden in Flagstaff, a scraggly landscape of shrubs replaced the pines after the Radio Fire, which scorched 4,600 acres in 1977. On wide areas where Rodeo-Chediski burned, oak and juniper grow in clumps, but only grasses survive in some areas.

“What hasn’t recovered yet is the soil,” said Gayle Richardson, a silviculturist for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. She stood in an open tract of what was once dense ponderosa forest outside Heber, one of the areas hardest hit by Rodeo-Chediski.

“When you look down and see bare ground,” she said, kicking the soil, “that hasn’t recovered. There are areas that won’t recover without replanting. Those areas are so badly burned, nature won’t replace what was lost in any meaningful way. There won’t be a ponderosa forest there.”

Impact on wildlife

In the days after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, crews from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Forest Service surveyed the burned areas from the air and on the ground, looking for evidence of what happened to the wildlife as the flames moved across the landscape. What they found and what biologists have learned since underscore the importance of maintaining forest health and protecting critical habitat.

Ponderosa forests support layer upon layer of insects, birds, small mammals, large grazers and predators, from the iconic tassel-eared Abert’s squirrel and the Mexican spotted owl, which rely directly on the trees for shelter and food, to the elk and mule deer, which wander across the meadows and among the pines.

One of the questions the wildlife experts hoped to answer in the survey was whether there were large numbers of animal deaths. There had been few animals spotted fleeing the woods toward communities, suggesting many had perished in the smoke and flames. What the surveyors found was a scattering of fatalities and many more live animals in areas that were not as severely burned.

“Each animal had its own survival strategies,” said Bruce Sitko, education-program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Pinetop-Lakeside region. “Wildlife had evolved with fire. The elk moved from one side to another, the squirrels would crawl into rock cavities and wait. They weren’t running from the fire because their strategy was to stay where they were.”

As long as there was forested habitat, the native species seemed to adapt. When the habitat changed, the animals and birds either moved on or struggled to survive.

Mexican spotted owls have lived in the ponderosa forests of the White Mountains for thousands of years, but they are a threatened species because their habitat has been altered by logging and severe wildfires.

“There is a misperception that owls can just move,” said Steve Spangle, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arizona. “But other areas may be taken by another bird, and a newcomer may not be able to establish a territory.”

At the same time, he said, “they evolved in a fire-adapted ecosystem, so they have a mechanism for survival.” Biologists just don’t know enough about what happens after a severe wildfire to draw conclusions about the effects on wildlife.

“These fires are going to have ripples for years,” Spangle said. “We’ll see changes in patterns of wildlife as the landscape changes. The species that are dependent on young vegetation will do better for a while, the elk and deer, for example. Then the predators will respond to that.”

Ten years after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, wildlife diversity has increased in some areas, Sitko said. The fire didn’t blacken every acre. It burned a mosaic pattern, ranging from charred to virtually unburned. Some animals have taken advantage of the change.

“Mule deer numbers have surged like crazy over the last 10 years because the fire cleared the forest canopy and vegetation started to return,” Sitko said.

That mosaic pattern also hampered the ability of some species to move freely, said Shaula Hedwall, a senior wildlife biologist for the fish and wildlife service in Flagstaff. Owls and squirrels use trees to move around and may have a hard time finding food or new homes if severely burned trees impede their movement.

The aftermath of the big fires also demonstrates the long-lasting effects on habitat, she said. Some riparian areas in the forests above Payson still have not recovered from the 1990 Dude Fire, which burned across 24,000 acres and killed six firefighters.

“We’ve been all too aware of what we’re losing, and that’s the really frustrating part,” Hedwall said. “It takes so long to enact change after the damage has been done.”

Evidence thinning works

People have become a part of the ponderosa ecosystem, but their ideas of what makes a forest are not always the same as the scientists and land managers trying to preserve the landscape.

“We finished some thinning up here behind the country club last year, and when the residents started coming back, our phones lit up,” said Ed Collins, Lakeside district ranger for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. “They wanted to know what we did to their forest. They weren’t happy at all.”

The Forest Service, working with a private company as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, had thinned a section of ponderosas that had grown unhealthy over the years, reducing the density from hundreds of trees per acre to about 30 or 40 per acre.

In that raw, just-cut-down state, the forest looks different, and not always in a good way. Stumps jut from the ground where grasses hadn’t grown for years because sunlight barely filtered through the thick stands of trees. But Collins drove a few miles down a road to another area that was thinned several years ago. Grass and other vegetation covered the ground, dappled with sunshine. Stumps were less prominent.

Advocates of thinning point to the Wallow Fire as evidence that these treatments are effective. The fire dropped from the crowns of trees to the ground when it hit areas that had been thinned as part of the White Mountain project and likely saved the communities of Nutrioso and Alpine.

“The treatments that are necessary work,” Collins said. “They absolutely work. Just give us the resources, and we can produce the results.”

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative will provide more resources, enough, advocates hope, to thin more than 1 million acres of forest across 2.4 million acres in northern and eastern Arizona over the next 20 years. A private company will cut down small-diameter trees, those 16 inches around and less, and use the timber to manufacture wood products.

Many forest residents and a vocal group of elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., believe the government should go much further, reopening the forests to timber cutting, especially in areas most vulnerable to fire. Those critics blame environmentalists, whose lawsuits to protect the spotted owl all but halted large-scale wood harvesting.

Rick Holliday, owner of Holliday Timber in Alpine, has been cutting trees as part of the White Mountain project. The contracts helped save his business, which suffered amid the lawsuits.

“The last 15 years, the environmentalists have shut most of the work down,” Holliday said, “which has allowed the forest to grow up, which is, to me, the main contributing factor to the Wallow Fire. It’s why it burned so many acres and burned so hot.”

In recent months, Holliday has been cutting salvage timber in areas burned by the Wallow Fire. The process can be frustrating because of rules that limit salvage to the smaller trees.

The Forest Service requires salvage operations to leave many large-diameter trees, typically 16 inches or larger, as a way of protecting habitat for endangered species and promote long-term soil health once the trees begin to fall. Also, the market for large-diameter trees is limited in Arizona.

“We’re letting all this other timber go to waste,” Holliday said. “They just don’t get it. A dead tree we can cut means a live tree somewhere else stays standing. I just hope this (fire) turned some heads and woke some people up. Let’s thin the rest of our forest before it burns.”

Even as high-country residents get used to the idea of thinning their dense ponderosa stands, the Forest Service is prepared to introduce the other side of the restoration equation: fire. Ponderosa forests evolved and adapted with fire, and scientists believe fire is necessary to restore forest health.

The Forest Service has already outlined plans for the first managed burns on the Rodeo-Chediski Fire area. Some parts of the fire’s footprint never burned — wind, natural firebreaks, even the time of day flames moved through helped create the mosaic pattern of burn severity — and others are already growing dense with young pines and oaks.

Along a road above Heber, ponderosas have already regenerated and have, in 10 years, reached heights of 6 or 7 feet. And, because fire has been suppressed, they are still too close to each other. A new fire would explode across the landscape all over again.

“This is not a natural condition,” said Richardson, the Forest Service silviculturist, as she walked through a bramble of pines, oaks and juniper, all of it new since the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. Had there been natural fire on the landscape, she said, the sort that burned close to the ground, the recovering areas would have been thinned by now. “I’m afraid we still can’t thin fast enough to keep up.”

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