Let it burn.
Baby, let it burn.
But, like, carefully.
The Tonto National Forest has announced plans to burn 1,800 acres near Young in the coming months, perched on the edge of the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
The series of prescribed burns over the winter will help restore the forest, protect Young, safeguard a vital power line and improve the watershed.
Assuming the fire doesn’t get out of control and do something awful.
Alas, that’s the dilemma facing the Forest Service now that a decades-long drought and a century of cattle grazing and fire suppression has ushered in the terrible new era of megafires.
One study after another has showed that prescribed fires — combined with small tree logging or mechanical thinning — offer the only narrow, rocky path back to a healthy, fire-adapted forest.
Mechanical thinning combined with prescribed burns removes far more of the fuel that drives megafires, according to one study by the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station as well as a team of university researchers published in Ecological Applications. The team compared thinned sites to sites both thinned and burned and found far less fuel on the ground as well as less canopy cover. This significantly reduced the chance of a crown fire, even with all the biggest trees left standing.
However, the drought and increasingly fickle winter and monsoons have also made it harder than ever to use the essential tool of prescribed fire to restore the forest.
Moreover, the construction of so many communities like Young, Payson and Show Low in forested areas without the protection of either Firewise brush clearing codes or fire-hardened building codes has dramatically increased the risk when a prescribed fire escapes control.
The Forest Service has known for decades that a combination of prescribed burns and logging projects that leave the biggest trees can maintain a diverse forest — while reducing the odds of a town-destroying megafire. However, every time a prescribed burn gets out of hand and does damage — the Forest Service backs off additional burns for years to come.
The careful planning for the Flying V&H Project burns offers a perfect case in point — as the Forest Service doggedly seeks to reduce the threat of forest-destroying megafires in a roughly 60,000-acre area.
The ultimate goal remains the return of fire to its natural role in the fire-adapted forests of the Southwest. Early settlers described a grassy, open ponderosa pine forest dominated by giant, old-growth trees. Low intensity fires burned through this forest every five or 10 years, taking out the brush and saplings, restoring the soil, and invigorating the grass. You could drive a wagon easily through the open forest with 50 trees per acre. Moreover, the fires created rolling grasslands teeming with antelope.
Now, the huge stretches of pinyon juniper have smothered the grasslands and thickets of pine seedlings have debilitated the forest — reaching densities of 1,000 per acre or more. Overgrazing removed the grass that once carried the ground fires and fire suppression filled the once-open forest with small, stunted tree thickets.
The Forest Service hopes to eventually restore that open, low-density forest, where it’s safe to let fire ramble along the ground doing its job every five years or so.
So far, it’s not going well.
In part, that’s because the increase in hot, dry, windy conditions caused by ongoing climate change has made prescribed fires potentially much harder to control. In addition, headlong development of small, poorly prepared subdivisions in the forest has not only increased the risk of big fires — it has increased the number of people who complain about smoke produced by the prescribed burns.
For instance, this year the winter was so dry and the spring so hot and parched that the Forest Service canceled prescribed fire projects throughout the state — postponing even some mechanical thinning projects. The monsoon brought relief, but now the fire crews needed to supervise prescribed burns are mostly in California, Washington, Wyoming and Montana — struggling to save whole towns from a terrible fire season.
And that brings us back to the modest controlled burns now planned on the outskirts of Young, where the Pleasant Valley War once pitted ranchers and sheep herders and rustlers against one another for control of those rich grasslands.
Pleasant Valley District Ranger Matt Paciorek hopes the project will ultimately make it safe to let more natural, low-intensity fires burn.
“Overall, there is a need to improve individual tree health. Reducing stand densities, improving watershed conditions and wildlife habitat diversity can help us achieve the desired conditions of the Tonto’s Land and Resource Management Plan.”
The Forest Service will first mechanically thin portions of the project area, before setting a prescribed burn when weather conditions and fuel moistures make that safe. The National Forest Foundation and the Arizona Game and Fish Department are partnering with the Forest Service to do the work.
In this way, it’s like the effort to thin and burn 60,000 acres draining into the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, which provides water to both Payson and Salt River Project customers in the Valley.
“This project represents a win-win for all the partners,” said Rebecca Davidson, NFF’s Southwest Region director. “Through this work, we will protect wildlife, improve forest and watershed conditions, protect local communities and power line infrastructure and provide an important wildfire buffer for adjacent tribal lands.”
The project also includes an assessment of cultural resources in the area, which includes traditional lands of the White Mountain Apache and archaeological sites dating back thousands of years. The Forest Service has cleared the first 1,800 acres for thinning and burning, but archaeological studies and other pre-fire assessments will continue on the additional 57,000 acres to clear the way for future burns.
“The Flying V&H Project is a great example of the power of collaboration and partnerships to achieve quality outcomes for overall forest health and the improvement of wildlife habitat,” said Regional Supervisor Josh Hurst of AZGFD. “The department is honored to have a seat at the table and contribute to this effort and looks forward to partnering on mutually beneficial projects in the future.”