Plumes of smoke underscore dramatic change in Forest Service’s attitude toward fire

18 October 2019

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USA – WHITE MOUNTAINS — As fall deepens, the Forest Service is rushing to burn as much forest as it can manage.

That gives a whole new twist to the image of Smokey Bear. It’s gone from “Only you can prevent wildfires,” to something like “only you can learn to live with fire.”

The shift has big implications for building codes and risk management approaches for every community in the ponderosa pine forests. It’s now clear that preventing disasters like the Camp Fire in Paradise, California or another Rodeo-Chediski blaze will require forested communities to adapt to both the frightening wildfire season of June and controlled burns and managed fires burning right up to the edge of town for four or six months a year.

In fact, the Forest Service’s embrace of managed fires demonstrates the revolution in its approach to forest management and restoration and preventing catastrophic wildfires.

The thick columns of smoke rising from a host of managed fires and controlled burns has made residents nervous all across the state – including the White Mountains.

Last week the Forest Service was burning some 2,600 acres on the Black Mesa Ranger District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Springerville. The columns of smoke were visible from Forest Lakes, Heber/Overgaard and Winslow. The Forest Service teamed with Arizona Game and Fish and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to plan and manage that burn, which will likely run through Oct. 18.

“Prescribed burning provides many benefits and is essential to maintaining healthy forest ecosystems,” the Forest Service said this week in a release about the fire. “This prescribed fire is a follow-up to previous mechanical treatments within parts of the unit. It provides habitat diversity, recycles plant nutrients into the soil and encourages new growth for a variety of plants used by wildlife and livestock. Prescribed burning of forest ground fuels also reduces the threat of large-scale wildfire impacts to private lands.”

Research has demonstrated that such fires must become a matter of routine in order to restore the forest and prevent unnatural, catastrophic, high-intensity fires. However, that’s proving difficult for two reasons. First, the explosion of development in forested areas has made it much more difficult to burn large tracts of forest safely. Secondly, the dangerous accumulation of fuels during a misguided century of fire suppression means the forest must survive two or three low-intensity managed fires before wildfires can safely return to their historic role in thinning tree thickets, enriching the soil and regulating the ecosystem of the ponderosa pine forests.

A 30-year education

A survey by the Forest Service’s Southwest Research Center demonstrated the complexity of the lessons learned from 30 years of experimentation with prescribed fires. The forest managers on the White Mountains Apache Reservation led the way in the 1950s, repeatedly setting large-scale burns that covered thousands of acres. Those fires have maintained a much healthier forest than in many other areas of the state, concluded the researchers, including Stephen Sackett, Sally Haase and Michael Harrington.

The researchers said that a century of fire suppression and cattle grazing have greatly complicated the task of forest managers seeking to return fire to its historic role in the ponderosa pine forest of the Southwest.

Many areas of the forest now have 2,000 small trees per acre. Those trees are actually some 80 years old in many cases, which means they have thick bark and won’t burn easily in a low-intensity fire. However, in a high-intensity fire, they not only burn fiercely but torch the lower limbs of the even older trees above them. In addition, across some four million acres, perhaps 50 tons of dead and downed wood has accumulated per acre. That means low-intensity fires have a hard time consuming all the downed fuel and high-intensity fires burn so hot they sterilize the soil.

As a result, using fire to thin out millions of acres of poses a complicated challenge. Forest managers must very carefully conduct two or three burns to return the forest to normal conditions – and then ensure new fires burn through the area roughly once every three years for several more cycles. Only after repeated fire treatments can managers return fire to its normal frequency – roughly once every seven years, concluded the researchers.

That has huge implications for forested communities.

Many forest residents assume they just have to dodge the bullet of mega-fires like the Rodeo Chediski once every 20 or 40 years. Otherwise, they hope thinning projects like the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative will thin the forest and eliminate the threat of wildfires.

However, the latest research shows communities must adapt to frequent nearby fires – including prescribed fires that can get out of control if conditions shift rapidly. For instance, after the Forest Service launched several prescribed fires last week, temperatures rose and winds kicked up – making them much more difficult to manage. The widespread use of prescribed fires inevitably poses a risk that some of those fires will escape control.

So communities like Show Low, Vernon, Pinetop and others must accept the risk that nearby fires will regularly approach the town limits – and sometimes scatter windborne embers across town. However, most have not adopted either effective Firewise brush-clearing projects or Wildlands-Urban-Interface (WUI) building codes.

So don’t be frightened this week when you see smoke on the horizon.

But take it as a warning.

One way or another – the fire’s coming.

(Stay tuned for a story on what the experts have learned about prescribed fires from the White Mountain Apache Reservation’s management as well as decades of trial and error.)

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

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