Americans claim they love their public lands, national parks, and national forests. There are a number of ways, however, to gauge if that profession lines up with reality.
One simple way to determine whether that claim is authentic is to track how people handle fire on their public lands. A genuine love for the land (every American's priceless heritage to be passed on to future generations) is directly tied to a solid outdoor ethic that reflects appreciation and regard for the ecosystem in which you are a guest and a vigilant awareness to protect that natural resource from unwarranted degradation and unnecessary damage.
From 2000 through 2006, human-caused wildfires, occurring from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, decreased on the Payson Ranger District by 41.10 percent over the previous seven-year period from 1993 through 1999.
With the percentage of human-caused wildfires on the Payson Ranger District steadily moving downward since 2000, this year opened early on a troublesome note. Out of the first seven wildfires to ignite on our district in 2007, five were caused by private individuals burning debris. Fortunately, potential disasters were averted, due to the expedient response of firefighters. Additionally, some of those debris fires "spotted" into adjacent district fuel breaks and quickly burned out, because the continuous fuel source had been mitigated.
Since 2000, human-caused wildfires have decreased on the district, but see if you notice something disturbing in this compilation of statistics for the period from Jan. 1 thru Sept. 7:
Year - # of Fires - Acres Burned - Largest Fire - Cause
2007 - 92 - 4272.25 - Promontory Fire (4044) - Campfire
2006 - 98 - 4431.40 - February Fire (4243) - Campfire
2005 - 72 - 593.25
2004 - 88 - 4604.30 - Webber Fire (4311) - Campfire
2003 - 104 - 25.50
2002 - 115 - 517.80
2001 - 68 - 13.45
2000 - 109 - 537.75
It's pretty hard to miss, isn't it? The three biggest fires to start on our district since 2000 are attributed to human carelessness and suggest a troubling lack of regard for our public lands. Look closely at the cause of those three large wildfires in 2004, 2006, and 2007. Abandoned campfires are the leading cause of human-caused wildfires across the nation and also on the Payson Ranger District.
Each year, our district experiences many fire starts, but relatively little acreage is burned during most years. The quick response and initial attack capabilities of our firefighters is impressive. The national average for catching wildfires with initial attack at a half an acre or less is 68 percent. The Payson Ranger District and cooperating fire agencies in Rim Country have beaten that average for the past 14 years, 11 of which were plagued by drought. Drought conditions significantly increase the rate of fire spread, thus making it much more difficult to catch wildfires while they are still small. Our 14-year average (1993 through 2006) for shutting down wildfires, with initial attack at half an acre or less, is an amazing 84.82 percent.
Each spring, I visit elementary schools in Rim Country and share with students the correct way to extinguish a campfire. They are receptive, they are listening, and they will make a difference. You see, it really doesn't take much to make sure your campfire is cool to the touch.
- Step One: Pour water on your campfire.
- Step Two: Stir your campfire with a shovel.
- Step Three: Repeat steps one and two until your campfire is cool to the touch.
Thanks for listening to our ongoing fire prevention message. Let's see to it that human-caused wildfires continue their downward trend on this district. Only you can make a difference and you have.
Gary Roberts has been the Payson Ranger District fire prevention officer since 2000. He is a member of the Northern Arizona Incident Management Team and has worked for both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. He has been a wild land firefighter and a fire lookout.