Blazes Drive Home Urgent Lessons

Dangerous San Juan Fire proves value of thinning projects

Crews battling the 6,400-acre San Juan Fire just 18 miles from Show Low and the nearly 11,000-acre Oak Fire near China Peak in the Safford Ranger District took advantage of thinning projects and previously burned areas to provide a safe staging area for firefighters to set backfires and crucial fire breaks over the weekend. Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the deaths of 19 firefighters in Yarnell. Those firefighters died trapped in thick, overgrown brush trying to move between a burned area and a cleared area.

Crews battling the 6,400-acre San Juan Fire just 18 miles from Show Low and the nearly 11,000-acre Oak Fire near China Peak in the Safford Ranger District took advantage of thinning projects and previously burned areas to provide a safe staging area for firefighters to set backfires and crucial fire breaks over the weekend. Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the deaths of 19 firefighters in Yarnell. Those firefighters died trapped in thick, overgrown brush trying to move between a burned area and a cleared area.

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The struggle to contain the explosive, 6,400-acre San Juan Fire east of Show Low has once again demonstrated the value of thinning projects designed to both control wildfires and improve forest health.

The 552 firefighters battling the fire on Sunday set a series of backfires intended to stop the spread of the fire to the west toward Show Low. Thinning projects undertaken as part of the faltering White Mountain Stewardship Project helped stop the spread of the fire on the north, south and east, according to the Forest Service. Although the fire remained only 5 percent contained on Monday, the back fires had stopped its spread.

The human-caused fire started last Thursday on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and grew rapidly. By Sunday it had consumed 5,000 acres and continued to threaten an estimated 90 structures. Authorities had ordered mandatory evacuations of a number of forested, second-home communities in the thick ponderosa pine forests near Vernon — not far from the Sunrise Ski Resort between Show Low and Springerville.

Fire crews this week will have to cope with high temperatures and low humidity all week. They may get relief if monsoon storms move in at the end of the week — however, early monsoon storms often produce lots of lightning and wind, but not much rainfall.

The forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain in Payson on Friday, but highs near 100 until then.

The San Juan Fire is just one of a host of fires burning throughout the Southwest. The Assayii Lake Fire has burned nearly 15,000 acres on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, but is now 98 percent contained.

The more than 11,000-acre, lightning-caused Oak Fire on the Safford Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest is expected to continue growing until monsoon rains start, but isn’t threatening structures.

The 6,143-acre Galahad Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the 1,843-acre Dehose Fire on the White Mountain Apache Reservation also continue to burn, but have been contained by their encounter with previously burned areas.

Fire managers on the San Juan Fire credited forest-thinning projects, which were part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, with helping to contain the flames.

“Incident Commander Matt Reidy is pleased with the progress firefighters are making and for staying safe by utilizing past pine thinning treatments as anchors to control the fire progress,” said a release from the Southwest Area Incident Management Team issued in conjunction with a community meeting in Vernon over the weekend that drew 200 residents.

Mandatory evacuations remained in effect for half a dozen subdivisions in the area and most of the Forest Service roads in the area of the fire remained closed as well.

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Firefighters used spaces created by thinning projects to start backfires to help control the San Juan and Oak fires over the weekend.

An earlier release from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests concluded that “the northeast corner of the fire burned into the White Mountain Stewardship Project area and dropped to the ground. This allowed crews to utilize burn operations off of Forest Service Road 61. Firefighters will continue to actively suppress the fire where it is most active.”

Back in June of 2011, fire managers said that clearing projects by the White Mountain Stewardship Project helped save both Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire, the largest fire in recorded state history. Started from a campfire, the Wallow Fire forced the evacuation of 6,000 people, destroyed 32 homes and 36 other buildings, inflicted $109 million in damage and burned 841 square miles. The two men whose campfire started the disaster pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution.

The fire had climbed up into the tops of the trees and was charging toward Springerville and Alpine as fast as the winds could drive it when it hit an area previously cleared as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project. The thinning projects reduce tree densities from between 800 and 1,000 per acre to more like 50 per acre. As a result, a crown fire could no longer spread easily from treetop to treetop. That forced the fire to drop to the ground, where firefighters had a chance to stop it.

Equally important, the cleared areas provided a relatively safe place for firefighters to stage their attack.

The 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew who died in the Yarnell Fire were trapped in thick brush that hadn’t burned in 50 years as they tried to make their way from the safety of a burned area to an area around a ranch that had been cleared to Firewise standards.

Ironically, although the White Mountain Stewardship has now demonstrated its value in saving several communities from wildfire, it is now almost defunct.

The U.S. Forest Service supported the launch of the project a decade ago, promising subsidies of about $800 per acre in hopes of clearing about 20,000 acres annually. Advocates for the project hoped that the guarantee of a steady supply of wood from brush and small trees would foster the development of a new timber and wood products industry in the White Mountains to consume the huge amount of biomass cleared from the forest.

However, the Forest Service never came up with enough money to allow for the clearing of more than about 5,000 acres annually. As the money dried up, the supply of wood dwindled — and the small-scale wood products industry that sprang up in the White Mountains withered.

The Forest Service hoped that the Four Forest Restoration Initiative would effectively replace the White Mountain Stewardship approach. The 4FRI approach also focused on small trees, but hoped to operate on a large enough scale to encourage the revival of a timber industry geared to making a profit on small trees. In theory, that would allow for large scale thinning without a taxpayer subsidy.

However, as the White Mountain Stewardship Project dwindled for lack of a subsidy, the 4FRI effort lagged far behind schedule for lack of either enough projects ready to cut or a contractor with the financing necessary to build the new mills and bio-fuel and power plants necessary to consume the huge volume of wood that would come from actually thinning the targeted 30,000 to 50,000 acres a year envisioned in the original contract for 300,000 acres. Even that was supposed to just be phase one of a contract that would cover 1 million acres.

Fortunately, the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest has proved adept at snagging year-end Forest Service money to thin a buffer zone on the outskirts of most Rim Country communities. In the past decade, the Payson Ranger District has spent more than $11 million on the effort and has created for most communities the kind of thinned defense that saved Alpine and Springerville.

Local fire managers continue to seek grants to complete the buffer zone, especially along the Control Road and in the vicinity of Christopher Creek. That includes a just-completed project that’s actually one of the few 4FRI projects currently underway.

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