by Jim Zornes, forest supervisor, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests
There has been a lot of discussion in the media lately on the national forest treatment activities associated with the management of the San Juan Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. I hope to at least set the record straight on what has occurred, and dispel some inaccurate information as it relates to vegetation management activities on the local level.
The San Juan Fire started around noon on Thursday, June 26, 2014 on White Mountain Apache Tribal lands near San Juan Lake. The fire was driven by a strong southwest wind and soon crossed over onto the Apache-Sitgreaves NF, about six miles south of Vernon. Fort Apache Agency of the BIA ordered the Southwest Area Incident Management Team (IMT) 4 (Matt Reidy’s team), who assumed command of the fire at 8 p.m., Friday, June 27, 2014. The fire was making significant crown fire runs in the mixed conifer, and burning downslope toward the transition into ponderosa pine. One of the first pieces of information from the San Juan Fire IMT was the accounts of the fire laying down when it hit areas of treatment in the pine.
White Mountain Stewardship (WMS) is still the oldest and largest “operationally active” stewardship contract in the country, beginning in August, 2004 and terminating in August 2014. It terminates in August because federal law requires all Integrated Resource Service Contracts to have a maximum term of 10 years.
WMS was developed in the aftermath of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 to treat fuels, especially around communities, and to build industry to support future treatment opportunities. It is, and has been, wildly successful. The degree of
magnitude did not rise to the 150,000-acre threshold as planned, but has resulted in over 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment. A large portion of those treatments occurred in the path of the San Juan Fire. We don’t have to go back very far to see the same benefits of treatments in Alpine, Nutrioso, Eagar and Greer from the Wallow Fire.
But that’s not the whole story for the San Juan Fire; there have been thousands of acres of other treatments outside WMS that include additional timber sales, stewardship contracts and prescribed fire. Rocky Mountain Elk Society, Arizona Elk Society, Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Habitat Partnership Committee have all stepped up to contribute funds to carry out these additional fire and vegetation management activities. Some news accounts have stated all these activities in past tense, but during the San Juan Fire, active logging was still occurring with log decks immediately adjacent to the fire lines. Additionally, prescribed fire is occurring whenever fire personnel can safely meet the objectives of their burn plans.
Suppression activities on the nearly 7,000-acre San Juan Fire are estimated to cost about $6.5 million (excluding resource values), with $250,000 of that total included as Burned Area Emergency Response. The above mentioned activity equates to approximately $932/acre. Without prior treatments modifying fire behavior, the number of acres burned the total costs of suppression and risk to firefighters would have been much higher. Mechanical treatments and prescribed fire modify the fuels environment; remember the fire triangle contains air (oxygen), heat and fuel. The goal of treatment, whether by mechanical means or prescribed fire, is to reduce the effects of heat generated by reducing the amount of fuels. That in turn reduces the propensity for fires to reach the crowns of trees, and allows firefighters a safer environment to work.
Mechanical treatment costs have actually fallen from a high of around $500/acre 10 years ago to at or near zero costs today. For the past three-and-a-half years, competitively bid timber sales and stewardship contracts have actually posted positive returns to Treasury. However, another cost center that must be addressed is the cost in firefighter safety. It is not enough to say one person or another is to blame for firefighter losses we’ve experienced over the past few years. Even one is not acceptable; even one is not on the table as a consequence of actions. Treatments do improve the “odds” of firefighters successfully managing and/or suppressing wildfires in a safer environment.
But once again, fire suppression and national forest treatment costs are not the total story; those activities from partnership dollars, along with work being done by the Navajo, Greenlee and Apache counties in partnership with Arizona State Forestry and White Mountain Apache Tribe have contributed greatly to treating both sides of the ownership lines, whether it is federal, state, or private lands. Those continued partnership activities are what it is going to take to continue to make advancements in protecting communities and resources in the White Mountains.
There is currently a national investigation team looking at the effectiveness of treatments — another requirement for incidents such as the San Juan Fire when a wildfire burns into managed areas. If past history is a guide, I think we may already know the results of that outcome.