Smoke continued to drift through many mountain communities this week, as forest managers set hundreds of acres on fire.
Determined to take advantage of cool, moist fall conditions before winter storms set in, fire crews set or monitored a host of fires — mostly up on top of the Mogollon Rim.
The controlled burns of fall have established a new fire season, this one designed to protect forest-hemmed communities from uncontrolled spring and summer wildfires.
The smoke from those mostly distant fires drifted into various Rim Country communities, inspiring a flurry of calls from people either worried about an uncontrolled blaze or suffering from breathing problems.
Forest Service officials defended thethe controlled burns as necessary to prevent far worse fires in the dry heat of May, June and July.
The Forest Service has labored in the past five years to thin buffer zones around forest communities as a line of defense against those monster summer fires.
The most urgent strategy relied on hand-thinning overgrown forests on the outskirts of Payson, Pine, Strawberry and then burning the slash piles. In addition, fire crews clear firebreaks along roads or other natural barriers then set the contained forest on fire when conditions allow, thinning out thickets and debris at a much lower cost than hand-thinning.
A partial list of controlled burns under way this week includes:
Ranger Complex: These two lightning-caused fires have been burning since mid July and have now affected some 3,650 acres between Highway 87 and the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The fire continues to amble through an unpopulated area, so a single fire crew has been watching and letting it burn. No private land or recreation sites are threatened.
Weir Fire: The 1,300-acre fire has been producing smoke that has drifted into Oak Creek and the Verde Valley, but has not threatened any structures. The column of smoke remains visible from I-17, Flagstaff and Mormon Lake as well. The fire has been burning since Aug. 16 and has forced the closure of FR 239 and FR 665.
Blue Ridge Urban Interface: 500 acres south of Highway 87 off Forest Road 95 near the Blue Ridge Ranger Station. The project has special value for Rim Country, since it will help protect the watershed for the Blue Ridge Reservoir, which could be affected by increased erosion and flooding following a big fire.
East Clear Creek Project: East of Blue Ridge Reservoir and south of Highway 87.
Kachina Project: 550 acres south of the Kachina Village off Forest Road 237, which has been producing smoke that has been drifting into Flagstaff.
A-1 Project: 300 acres east of Bellemont off Forest Road 518.
Fort Valley Project: 300 acres off Snowbowl Road and Highway 180 just north of Flagstaff. The smoke has affected several subdivisions on the outskirts of Flagstaff, but most of the smoke has drifted into the Shultz Pass area — where a summer wildfire devastated a thick stand of pines and aspens. That fire caused flooding and mudslides that damaged hundreds of homes, precisely the problem the controlled burns are intended to minimize.