Officials Using Low-Intensity Fires To Help Thin Forest

Smoke drifting through Rim Country from wildfires crews hope will do more good than harm

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Low-intensity forest fires that have consumed thousands of acres continue to burn this week on all sides of Rim Country.

U.S. Forest Service crews are mostly just watching and containing the fires, taking advantage of the still damp conditions spawned by this season’s monsoons.

On the Tonto National Forest, crew continue to monitor a 1,700-acre, lightning-caused fire just south of Highway 88 in near Fish Creek, which feeds into Apache Lake. Firefighters have closed Forest Road 213 from the junction with Highway 88 northwest for 2.5 miles.

Other, larger fires continue to burn atop the Mogollon Rim in the Coconino National Forest, with smoke sometimes sinking down into Rim communities, mostly at night.

The 3,600-acre Sand Rock fire near the junction of in the Mogollon Ranger District is the closest to Rim Country. Started by lighting on July 21, firefighters expect the fire to eventually grow to 14,000 acres – with the help of several backfires intended to both contain the main fire and expand its brush and tree-thinning effect.

The Forest Service has shifted in recent years to a strategy of letting such low-intensity fires burn whenever possible, despite the risk that an abrupt change in weather conditions could cause them to become less controllable.

Crews expect this week to continue starting backfires on the edge of the main fire, burning through stands of ponderosa, pine and juniper.

Crews have closed several forest roads, including 9381, 6201, 6172 and 9362K.

Technically, Rim Country has returned to a “moderate drought,” after a wet winter and a bone dry spring. The monsoons in the past few weeks have taken the edge off the drying trend, but haven’t returned conditions to normal.

Currently, Georgia, New Mexico and Texas are all suffering from a severe drought and southern Arizona from a moderate to severe drought.

This week’s stream flows in the Salt and Verde rivers plus Tonto Creek reveal the fickle nature of rainfall in a bizarre year in which hurricanes threaten New York. A year ago, the Salt River Projects Salt and Verde river reservoirs were at 91 percent of capacity at this point – this year, they’ve fallen to 72 percent.

This week the Salt River was flowing at 227 cubic feet per second as it entered Lake Roosevelt, about 60 percent of normal.

Tonto Creek, which normally at this time has 21 cubic feet per second at its juncture with Roosevelt has instead gone dry.

The Verde River at Tangle is carrying 108 cubic feet per second, about half of normal. By the time the river reaches Camp Verde, it’s carrying just 36 cubic feet per second – not much more water than SRP is putting into the East Verde from Blue Ridge at Washington Park.

The other fires burning on the Coconino are further from Rim Country. The Forest Service is letting them all burn in hopes that the low-intensity ground fires will consume enough saplings and brush to prevent catastrophic crown fires during hot dry months like May and June.

The Wallow Fire in the White Mountains demonstrated both the danger of such uncontrolled blazes and the benefits of thinning and controlled burns.

Thinning projects essentially saved Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire, a ravenous crown fire that consumed about 730 square miles – making it the largest wildfire in state history.

Other nearby fires include:

• The Rock Fire: Lightning sparked this 5,000-acre fire on July 18 just southeast of Stoneman Lake, which remains closed to the public. The closure area is bounded by Forest Roads 230 and 230E on the south and east, 229 and 9240K on the west, and Stoneman Lake Road/FR 213 on the north. These roads remain open, however all forest roads, trails and camping within the closure area are closed to public access.

• The Scout Fire; Caused by lightning on July 21, the fire six miles south of Clints Well, near Forest Road 141H and Forest Road 320 is fully contained at 810 acres.

Crews continue to monitor several other lighting caused fires including the 20-acre Diablo Fire, the 60-acre International Fire 11 miles southeast of Clints Well near McClintock, the 185-acre Kehl Fire six miles south of Clints Well near Kehl Ridge and four more lightning-caused fires are confined, all less than 2 acres in size.

• The Fly Fire: This 120-acre fire near Flagstaff is burning just one mile north of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, in an area that hasn’t burned in decades. Crews hope to take advantage of the idea fire conditions to set several controlled burns to extend the effect of the fire on overgrown tracts of forest.

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