So far, the Coldwater Fire up near Lake Mary Road and Highway 87 is a fire scientist’s dream.
It’s a textbook managed fire — the most important tool the Forest Service has for preventing catastrophic, town-destroying wildfires in Rim Country and the White Mountains.
The Forest Service is riding herd on half a dozen controlled burns and managed fires at the moment, including the 500-acre Hoyle Fire near Heber, the 8,600-acre Maroon Fire near Flagstaff, the 260-acre Southside Prescribed Burn near Flagstaff, the 2,500 Kaibab NF South Zone prescribed fire, the 72-acre Slide Fire north of the Grand Canyon, and the 15,000-acre Aravaipa County South Rim prescribed fire in southern Arizona.
Crews are much more actively fighting the 5,000-acre Woodbury Fire in a rugged wilderness area near Superior and the 7,400-acre Mountain Fire near Horseshoe Reservoir. Both those fires are burning in already hot, dry, lower-elevation areas, so those fires remain more likely to burn out of control.
On the other hand, the Coldwater Fire offers a perfect chance to study the Forest Service’s increasing reliance on managed and prescribed fires to thin dangerously overgrown forests and reduce the odds of a catastrophic crown fire, like the Rodeo-Chediski that nearly destroyed Show Low or the Camp Fire which last year consumed the California town of Paradise — killing 88 people.
So what made the Coldwater Fire a blaze the Forest Service could manage rather than rush to put out?
- The weather has provided near-perfect conditions.
- The brush and larger fuels have impressive moisture content.
- The fire continues to creep along the forest floor, burning needles and fine fuels.
Moreover, the Coldwater Fire started smack in the middle of the C.C. Cragin watershed project — an area the Forest Service, the Salt River Project and Payson are all desperate to thin before catastrophe strikes.
“With this particular fire and location, they had a lot of things lining up for them,” said Jessica Richardson, a Forest Service public information officer for the Coldwater Fire.
A lightning strike started the Coldwater Fire inconspicuously on May 30, but the blaze wasn’t reported until days later.
“When we get a lot of moisture on top of a strike, you don’t see the smoke from a fire right away,” said Richardson. “It smolders around the under layers of the vegetation until enough fuels dry out to show smoke ... the term they use is a ‘hold over’ because it didn’t happen right away.”
The behavior of the fire contributed to the Forest Service’s decision to use this naturally occurring fire to thin the forest around the C.C. Cragin Reservoir.
The Forest Service hopes the Coldwater Fire will burn out 17,400 acres, said Richardson. As of June 12, the Coldwater Fire had burned 13,010 acres.
“They have a perimeter around the fire that they feel confident they can meet the objectives,” she said. “We’re pretty fortunate most of the project area doesn’t have a lot of neighbors.”
Only one community lay near the projected management area. The first priority was to create a good line so the fire did not burn any structures.
“That was our first priority,” said Richardson. “We assessed the situation and immediately created a good containment line.”
In order to create a perimeter around the majority of the acres, the firefighters have started “burn out operations” near Highway 87.
This hasn’t helped the smoke issue.
“This weird moisture event coming from the southeast has the potential to really impact our smoke leading to visibility conditions that could severely affect driving, so you couldn’t see at all,” said Richardson.
To help, the Forest Service partnered with ADOT to shut down Highway 87 to one lane. A pilot car guided people through the smoke, said Richardson.
The worst of the smoke occurred in the wee hours of the morning, which were the same hours Payson saw smoke.
“Payson was getting smoke starting (in the) morning until mid-afternoon,” said Richardson. “It was following the 87 corridor.”
As the winds shifted in the afternoon, the smoke would drift away from Rim Country.
“We’ve had smoke reports in Winslow,” said Richardson. She expects to have more reports as the week goes on.
So far, the Coldwater Fire has 130 people “working in different capacities,” said Richardson.
Air support in the form of helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft has helped to keep the fire contained.
Yet this fire allowed the Forest Service to add drones to its arsenal.
“It’s really new. (Drones have) been used a handful of times so far ... to start ignitions,” said Richardson, “(drones have) been under testing for a long while ... it is still a fairly new technology ... it is a wonderful resource where we don’t necessarily have to use firefighters.”
Richardson explained the ignition process.
“It is a two-drone system,” she said. “The one drone is equipped with a plastic sphere dispenser device. They are little plastic balls with fuel in them. They shoot, then when they land they ignite.”
How many spheres the drone dispenses how quickly depends on the intensity of the fire the Forest Service hopes to ignite.
“There is a lot of science behind the process,” said Richardson. “The other drone ... is basically monitoring what is going on.”
Fire managers use the information from the monitoring drone to figure out what is going on with the fire — without putting lives in danger — or finding someone with very specific flight skills.
“To have pilots that have the skill set to order, ‘Hey, can you fly this super close to the tree line and drop it right here,’ is hard to find,” she said. “Drones are very maneuverable. If the drone is struggling and you lose it, you’ve only lost a piece of equipment, not a life.”
All in all the Forest Service sees many benefits from letting the Coldwater Fire run its course.
“It definitely is important to the forest and the district,” said Richardson. “We were able to put a lot of things into play on this one. We were able to take our time and really think things through.”