When Diane Vosick made her pitch to the Payson Town Council to get serious about forest health, she had no idea how soon the point would be dramatically brought home.
Vosick, associate director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, made her presentation March 25, emphasizing the need to thin the forests back to their density a century ago.
Just three days later, the Webber Fire north of Camp Geronimo was ignited, which topped out at little more than 4,300 acres before firefighters got it contained.
"The tragedy is it's exactly what we've been predicting -- that the fire season is starting early," Vosick said. "It only emphasizes the point that we need to be out there and doing this work."
During her presentation to the council, Vosick said that the forests of the Mogollon Rim and across much of the West have undergone a dramatic change in the last 100 years.
"This is historically a forest of low density," she said. "We're talking 30 to 60 trees per acre. Why was the forest like this at the turn of the century? Lightning."
The Rim area, Vosick said, receives more lightning strikes than most areas of the world, so lightning played a very important role in controlling forest density.
"Our forests burned on a frequent interval," she said, "but they didn't burn like the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. They burned on a surface fire regime. In other words, grasses would burn as the fire blasted through, but the big trees were resistant to this fire."
Such fires were actually beneficial, Vosick said. Besides releasing more nutrients so more grasses could grow, they burned up many of the little trees that, left unchecked, can choke the forest.
When people, for various reasons, began preventing forest fires, that's exactly what happened. During the relatively wet years of the early 20th century, millions of seedlings took hold. Today there are about 2,000 trees per acre.
"By 1992, we had a ladder fuel situation, and that's what we face today," Vosick said. "We've gone from fire on the ground that was beneficial, easily controllable, to fire in the tops of the trees. Ponderosa pine trees cannot survive fire in their tops, and the result is what you get with the Rodeo-Chediski Fire."
Vosick, who also is co-chair of the Governor's Forest Health Oversight Council, told the council that the problem is solvable.
"Fire needs three things," she said. "It needs an ignition source (heat), it needs fuel, and it needs air. The only thing we can control in the fire triangle is the fuel."
The benefits of thinning our forests are numerous, she said.
"When we go out into the landscape and develop treatments that will not only take care of wildfire, but reduce the threat of bark beetles, we get grasses back into the system. We get back the butterflies, flowers and other things that are very important components of the forest. The rich biological diversity of the forest is not in the trees; the real elegance is in the grasses, the shrubs, the birds."
Other benefits include protecting critical habitats and, of particular importance to the Rim country, an increase in water yield from the forest.
Vosick summed up her presentation with a statement that today, in the wake of the Webber Fire, seems prophetic.
"We live in a fire-prone forest," she said. "Fire is not ever going to go away. But there is good fire and there is bad fire."