Five years worth of sometimes-controversial tree thinning projects saved hundreds of homes in Alpine, Springerville and Greer from the ravages of the Wallow Fire, a just-released Forest Service report has concluded.
“When the fire came over the ridge toward Alpine, it sounded like a freight train. The smoke column was bent over, making it difficult to see. Without the fuel treatment effects of reducing flame lengths and defensible space around most houses, we would have had to pull back our firefighters. Many of the houses would have caught fire and burned to the ground,” concluded Jim Aylor, fire management officer for the Alpine Fire District.
Dramatic aerial photos show that a crown fire leaping from treetop to treetop faster than a man can run dropped to the ground when it hit a buffer zone where loggers had dramatically reduced tree densities and removed tons of brush from each acre.
The effect of the thinning projects offers a cautionary tale for Rim Country, where the Forest Service has not quite completed a similar thinned buffer zone around fire-menaced communities.
Payson, Star Valley, Pine and Strawberry have a good start on such a buffer zone, but unincorporated communities like Whispering Pines, Beaver Valley, Kohl’s Ranch, Christopher Creek, Tonto Village, Geronimo Estates and many others remain among the most fire-threatened communities in the nation.
The report lauded praise on the protection offered as a result of the troubled White Mountain Stewardship Project, which was originally intended as a model for the use of timber companies to provide a low-cost way to thin millions of acres of badly overgrown forests.
The Forest Service agreed to pay $800 per acre for the thinning, with the local firms using the small trees and brush for wood products. The project has thinned some 50,000 acres since 2004. However, the Forest Service has sharply limited the project in the past several years for lack of money. Instead of thinning 15,000 acres annually, the project has been limited to 5,000 acres. The 22 businesses with contracts to process and sell the wood say they can’t make a go of it if the Forest Service limits contracts to just 5,000 acres annually. Studies suggest the project has created 200 local jobs.
The economics of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, in turn, have cast a shadow over the much more ambitious 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI), which would thin a much larger area including most of Rim Country. The Forest Service has already put out requests for proposals from timber companies who could thin an initial 800,000 acres in the next decade. The Forest Service hopes that the guarantee of a large supply of small trees would prompt timber companies to invest millions to build small-wood mills and biofuel power plants. Backers hope the timber companies will make enough money on wood products that they won’t need an additional taxpayer subsidy.
As a result of a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression, tree densities across some six million acres of ponderosa pine forests in central Arizona have risen from maybe 30 to 50 per acre to 600 to 1,500 per acre.
The timber industry has all but collapsed in Arizona in the past 20 years as a result of a combination of factors. First, the mills ran short of the once endless supply of big, fire-resistant trees for which the mills were mostly designed. Moreover, a flurry of lawsuits by conservationist groups mostly focused on saving the remaining big trees and restoring forests to more natural conditions stalled many timber sales.
Now the Wallow Fire has provided dramatic support for a return of the timber industry focused on making money on the thickets of small trees less than 16 inches in diameter that pose an acute danger in a state where many towns and subdivisions are scattered throughout a thickly overgrown forest.
The Wallow Fire was apparently started from a single, untended campfire on May 29, a hot, windy day with 7 percent humidity. It ultimately grew to more than 733 square miles, the largest fire in state history.
By the sixth day, it had already consumed 63 square miles of forest — about 40,000 acres. By June 3, it had climbed into the tops of the trees and was roaring toward Alpine, a pristine, high-mountain town that cowered in its path. The fire advanced eight miles on a broad front on that terrible day, with flames leaping 100 feet into the air. Embers flung out a mile ahead of the fire front showered down on Alpine.
Firefighters are helpless in confronting such a fire. They dare not even try to hack out a fire line in front of it, when surrounded by thick forest and a fire moving through treetops faster than a man can run.
However, the White Mountain Stewardship Project had thinned a half-mile-wide strip of trees at the edge of Alpine.
That proved the little town’s salvation.
The raging crown fire dropped to the ground as soon as it hit that buffer zone, since the remaining trees were so widely spaced the fire couldn’t move from treetop to treetop. Instead of producing 50- and 100-foot-long gouts of flame, the fire now burned along in the debris on the ground.
This offered firefighters a safe space to operate ahead of the fire. They cut additional trees, cleared away brush and put out spot fires beyond the fire line. When they could, they also set backfires to burn toward the fire front, eating up the fuel and stopping the spread of the main body of flames.
Moreover, the fire department in Alpine had for years pressed homeowners to clear brush and trees around their houses, to create a “firewise” buffer zone.
The fire claimed only one home in Alpine — a house that burned days later, apparently the victim of smoldering embers.
“There’s no question that these previous fuel reduction actions allowed the firefighters to safely and aggressively fight the Wallow Fire,” the report concluded.
Local rancher Wink Crigler observed “The White Mountain Stewardship has a really good thinning project. When the fire comes, you need something that creates an opportunity for protection. We all knew that it was not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when’ fire was going to threaten our homes.”
Thinned buffer zones proved their value again on June 8, as the Wallow Fire roared down on Greer, driven by 20 mph winds. The fierce crown fire bore down on the small, forested community, heralded by a shower of embers and 50-foot flames.
However, the Forest Service had previously thinned a strategically located stand of forest on the south side of Greer at Amberon Point, which provided an “anchor point” for the defense of the town.
The Springerville Fire District took advantage of that cleared area to position firefighters between the fire and the homes.
Firefighters started backfires at the edge of the thinned areas, which gobbled up the fuel in the path of the main body of the fire and spared the town.