Foresters Fighting Fire With Fire

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As the Rim country enters another forest fire season, prescribed burns remain the U.S. Forest Service's first line of defense.

The theory behind prescribed burning is that ever-increasing numbers of people living in and around the forests have led to the suppression of natural, lightning-caused fires, resulting in a dangerous build-up of fuels.

It's a theory that has been clearly proven in this portion of the Tonto National Forest, said Bob Ortlund, district fire management officer for the Payson Ranger Station.

"We had the University of Arizona come up here with a field lab back in 1999 and cut some samples out of old stumps, some of which dated back to the 1600s," Ortlund said. Every time a fire burns through an area, it leaves a scar on the tree ring of every tree that survives.

"We were able to actually date every fire that happened around Camp Geronimo and some other areas we tested," he said. "What we found is that the fire occurrence in this region was the highest of anywhere in the Southwest."

The tests showed that fires every five to seven years were once the norm in this area, with some locations experiencing fires as often as every two years.

"Because the fuels never had a chance to build up on the ground, these were low-intensity fires," Ortlund said, "not high-intensity fires like the Dude Fire."

There was a time, the U of A discovered, when fires kept the forest so thin one could have driven wagons through without impediment. "But around 1870, the frequency of the fires dropped way down," Ortlund said. "That's about the time the Apache wars ended and the white man started settling the area."

Today, he points out, the buildup of fuels is greater than ever.

"Our fire suppression capabilities are a lot different than they were in the 1920s and 30s," he said. "Nowadays, we can get to a fire in minutes, and that's why the forest is so full of vegetation."

Add in the greater number of homes in forested areas such as the Rim country, and you have a real recipe for disaster, he said.

"What we're doing is building homes in an environment that evolved with fire," he said. "Fire isn't going to go away, so the best strategy is to use it to help us."

Prescribed burns are a simple strategy of mitigation, Ortlund said.

"We can't eliminate forest fires, but we can keep forests healthier by thinning them out much like they build buildings to withstand earthquakes in places where they know they are going to sooner or later occur."

Fighting fire with fire, however, is not risk-free. Just a year ago a wildfire sparked by an out-of-control prescribed burn destroyed some 200 homes around Los Alamos, N.M.

"There are a lot of checks and balances built into the prescribed burn system," Ortlund said. "The warnings were there in New Mexico, but they didn't respond quickly enough to them.

"It was a risky burn in the first place and they were just too eager to get it done. It was a drought year, and that itself should have been a red flag."

While Ortlund doesn't say it could never happen here, he does point out that the system works if it's followed.

"We evaluate each burn very carefully and make sure we're doing it the right way," he said. "We do not take unreasonable risks."

Critics of prescribed burns question the theory that fire lit by humans is natural. According to the Alan Savory Center for Holistic Management, a non-profit organization that advocates alternative forest management strategies, "We burn because, with little manpower and few dollars and growing demands on the resources, this is one of the easiest tools to use to 'fix the problem.'"

The center argues that the demise of grassland animals such as bison, wolves and pronghorn herds has led to an immense buildup of vegetation that requires us to use fire much more frequently than occurs naturally. Among the alternatives they suggest are "small diameter harvesting and thinning by humans" and continually moving dense herds of livestock over the lands to trample woody underbrush back into the soil.

The Forest Service often works closely with the center on projects such as a 1.6-million-acre national learning site being developed near Lost River Valley, Idaho, that will focus on effective resource management on public lands. One of the benefits of such efforts might be the development of more products that can be made from small-diameter growth harvested in the forests.

The Forest Service is currently testing one such product a new sign board that is "so hard even bullets can't dent it."

While Ortlund questions whether more intensive grazing would work in the Rim country's rough terrain, he does agree that the issue of fire management is a complex one that will ultimately require a combination of strategies.

"It has taken us 130 years to get where we're at today," he said, "and it will take some time and more than one solution before we'll be able to co-exist with the forest and not burn our homes up."

In the meantime, prescribed burns are scheduled to continue in the Rim country. Two are currently in progress near Young, and several more are scheduled for the Tonto Village area this spring if conditions are right.

"We'll cancel them if the weather and moisture aren't right," Ortlund said.

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