Bragging About Roaring Wildfires

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Photo courtesy Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests

Wildfires charred 21,000 acres this year in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

Once upon a time, forest managers would have been scared stiff by a year in which 21,000 acres of trees went up in flames.

But the folks who run the sprawling, two-million-acre Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests atop the Mogollon Rim are instead bragging on withstanding 180 wildfires that charred 32 square miles.

Coupled with projects that thinned another 14,000 acres and the nation’s only long-term contract to put loggers back to work improving forest health, the Apache-Sitgreaves forests this past year demonstrated a dramatic shift in forest management.

For nearly a century, Forest Service managers snuffed out every wildfire, which resulted in a badly overgrown forest, with tree densities 200 times greater than natural conditions. It also resulted in disasters like the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which consumed 461,000 acres and 491 structures, threatening the homes of 50,000 people and costing $50 million to fight.

The Forest Service has ever since been scrambling to thin forests crowded with 800 to 1,500 trees per acre, which means changing the whole approach to wildfires.

Most of this year’s 180 wildfires on the Apache-Sitgreaves burned only a small area. Only 10 of those fires covered more than 100 acres. However, instead of moving quickly to douse any fires that flared, forest managers this year let them burn.

The larger fires included the 1,250-acre Wagon Draw Fire north of Forest Lakes, the 6,300-acre Reno Fire southwest of Alpine, the 2,100-acre Weimer and 6,800-acre Durfee fires on the Alpine Ranger District and several fires each covering several hundred acres on the Black Mesa Ranger District.

Forest managers noted that letting such fires burn when the forest is wet enough to limit their spread, thins the forest and reduces the threat of future catastrophe for $20 to $100 per acre. By contrast, hand-thinning costs at least $600 per acre. Forest managers hand-thinned 14,000 acres, mostly to create fire breaks around vulnerable forest communities.

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