Death. Disaster. Dismay.
The huddle of forest lovers and managers could feel the menace, gathered thickly on every side in a tangled stand of crowded pines and stunted oaks along the Control Road close by Tonto Village.
“If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose it,” said Northern Arizona University researcher Bruce Greco, gesturing toward the silent sweep of forest crowded with perhaps 600 trees per acre and great piles of logs, dead trees and pine needles.
That intimidating moment came at the climax of a “Walk in the Woods” conducted by researchers from NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute and forest managers from the Payson Ranger District on Wednesday.
The examination of fire dangers came as three bone-dry months have dried out millions of trees and tons of dead wood on every acre. Jeremy Plain, a Forest Service fuels specialist, said the moisture content of the fuels throughout most of the forest has dropped to between 2 to 6 percent. Fuels are drier now than 98 percent of all previous records, he said.
The extreme fire conditions this year surprised forest managers who expected to get more of a break as a result of record rainfall and snowpack in January.
The tour on Wednesday included stops along some of the 17,000 acres of firebreaks thrown up to protect Rim Country communities in the past decade. But it concluded in the dark heart of the still uncleared forest that surrounds Tonto Village, Kohl’s Ranch and some approaches to Christopher Creek.
The Tonto National Forest has been struggling through bureaucratic and budgetary thickets for years, racing to create buffer zones around all the vulnerable Rim communities. Those cleared strips the width of a football field should force a rampaging fire racing through the treetops faster than a man can run to drop to the ground before it can consume whole subdivisions.
At a cost of about $1,000 per acre, the Payson Ranger District has completed fire breaks to protect Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Whispering Pines and other areas, said head ranger Ed Armenta.
“When we started, we had the second and third most fire-menaced communities in America,” Armenta said.
The district focused most of its attention on preparing timber sales and had not even completed basic surveys on thinning projects to protect the forest communities, he said.
But in recent years, the district has hand-thinned 17,000 acres and used controlled burns to clear another 50,000 acres — all strategically placed to protect forest communities.
The district is now hurrying to finish necessary environmental studies on an additional 37,000 acres of land along the Control Road near Tonto Village that would protect half a dozen communities. The district doesn’t currently have money to thin the key areas, pile up the small trees and burn off the slash piles, but hopes that if it gets the work done, the regional and national offices will provide left-over year-end money for the projects.
Plain said most of the forest communities now at least have protection from a 330-foot-wide buffer zone, where crews have cut almost all the saplings less than 12 inches in diameter and left an average of one tree every 20 feet. Such a buffer zone would force a crown fire to drop to the ground — where firefighters could make a stand to protect the community.
Armenta said the buffer zones created so far have left the region in “pretty good shape,” thanks in part to the $400,000 contributed by various towns, communities and Gila County to bolster the thinning process. Thinning 17,000 acres costs about $17 million, most of it from Forest Service funds.
Unfortunately, some of the buffer zones cleared three to five years ago already need a second trim, as a result of the rapid regrowth of brush, shrubs and small trees. The initial treatment costs $700 to $1,000 and a re-treatments costs about $120 per acre, which means the district can’t afford to thin more than a fraction of the overgrown acreage.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said regional officials have to develop industries — like power plants that burn wood pellets — to use the millions of tons of brush and trees cleared.
“I want to turn (the wood) into power, but we’re still not to the point we can do it on a site like this,” she said while standing at an area cleared a year ago, after contract crews reduced tree densities from about 500 per acre to more like 50 per acre. “It’s a marvel what you’ve done so far,” said Martin to Armenta. “It isn’t perfect, but it hasn’t burned yet. We’re ahead of the curve now that we were way, way behind five years ago.”
The basic network of firebreaks has given forest managers breathing room — which also opens the way to new tactics. For instance, having the firebreaks close to the communities allows firefighters to stop the advance of a dangerous fire by lighting a backfire at the edge of the buffer zone. In addition, the completed fire breaks make it possible to sometimes let fires burn during damp times of the year without worrying they’ll get out of control and destroy a settlement.
The NAU researchers on the tour praised the Payson Ranger District’s efforts to thin buffer zones as essential and a model for forests nationwide. The participants agreed that the long-term goal should focus on returning the forest to a condition in which natural, low-intensity wildfires can burn through every two to eight years.
Only returning fire to the system across millions of acres can restore forest health and protect forest communities at a price the taxpayers can afford, said participants.
Greco said that the forests that stretched across Rim Country 150 years ago probably had 25 to 50 trees per acre — perhaps half as dense as even the firebreaks hacked out of the thick forest in the past decade.
Big, fire-resistant trees dominated those forests, but covered only about 20 percent of the ground. That pre-settlement forest had a much greater diversity of plants and animals, with patches of trees, big open areas, meadows and lots of grass.
The introduction of millions of cattle before the turn of the century played the key role in the dramatic changes of the past century, said Greco.
He said the cattle ate virtually every blade of grass over a huge area, which all but eliminated the low-intensity ground fires that once burned through most areas every two to eight years.
Greco passed around one cross section of a tree that sprouted in 1606. Researchers had marked fire scars alongside the growth rings. Some 34 major fires had left their mark between 1606 and 1869, about when Europeans arrived with their vast herds of cattle. That works out to roughly one fire every seven years. However, the tree showed not a single scar for the next 126 years, until its death in 1995.
Greco said the elimination of the lush grass that once carried the low-intensity fires played the leading role in the transformation of the forest, augmented by the Forest Service’s efforts to suppress wildfires in the 20th Century.
Another key event was the extraordinary year of 1919, when most of the ponderosa pines now growing throughout the region sprouted. Known as the 1919 seed source, the year marks a still poorly understood bumper crop of ponderosa pine seedlings.
Greco said a succession of factors led to the sprouting of millions of seedlings in a single year. At that point, the cattle had not only eaten all the grass but had overturned the soil with their search for the last blades of grass. That overturned soil provided a perfect bed for a bumper crop of pine cones, which sprouted due to some perfect combination of rain and sun.
The result: Perhaps 70 percent of the ponderosa pines in the forest right now sprouted in 1919, said Greco.
The gathering broke up in one of those tree thickets, as everyone tried to imagine that vanished forest, with its big trees, wavering grasslands and rejuvenating fires.
Then they drove back down the highway into the forest of today. Plain, just off fighting a massive fire in New Mexico, noticed a tell-tale plume of smoke up on the Rim and began to worry.
The thunderheads gathered, but they had the look of those deadly, dry June thunderstorms, which deliver great, deadly slashes of lighting but not much rain. Just such a storm triggered the Dude Fire 20 years ago, which consumed 30,000 acres and killed six firefighters.
The area got lucky about a week ago — the same day the Shultz Fire started near Flagstaff. Here, a fire got started just off the Control Road. Fortunately, treacherous weather conditions over the Shultz Fire had delayed the dispatch of the air tanker and fire-fighting helicopter based here, said Plain. The helicopter and the air tanker managed to douse the fire before it got beyond four acres, although it was perfectly positioned to race up a slope and start a blowout. Meanwhile, the Shultz Fire spread to 15,000 acres.
“We just got lucky, that’s all,” said Plain.
Now he looks nervously out the window at the dry thunderheads.
“We just need some rain,” said Plain, peering up at the sky. “Just need some rain: That’ll make a big difference.”