Flagstaff, AZ – In 1996 several large wildfires scorched thousands of acres of forest near Flagstaff. Huge columns of smoke were visible from downtown. For many, it was a wake-up call: something needed to be done about the choked ponderosa pine forests surrounding the city. In the decade since, thousands of acres have been treated, and the so-called Flagstaff plan has been cited as a national fire protection model. In the final installment of KNAU's series on wildfire, Daniel Kraker reports on ten years of effort to protect Flagstaff from wildfire.
In the national forest just southwest of Flagstaff, Buck Wickham rubs his finger against the charred bark of a blackened ponderosa pine.
AX: 3:40 you can see how hot this tree burned, look at char pattern, goes way up side of tree, this is all blackened, you can see, rub it off
The tree has lost all its lower limbs, and the only green is perched way at the top, like the tassel on a hat. Wickham, a fire management officer for the Coconino National Forest, admits it isn't particularly pretty. But he says looks, in this case, are deceiving.
that tree's probably better off than it's been since it was a little bitty tree, laugh, all the competition around it is dead, doesn't compete for the sunlight, real fire proof now, you can see the whole lower extremity has been burned pretty hot, I'd say it's looking pretty good.
Three years ago Wickham oversaw a 100 acre prescribed burn here, a small chunk of the more than 30 thousand acres that have been thinned and burned around Flagstaff over the past several years. He says the forest here may not stop a wildfire, but it would slow it down so firefighters could catch it.
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That's not the case, though, at a nearby section of forest that Wickham says hasn't seen fire in decades.
Track 7, 1:00 AX: What we're looking at is a thicket of ponderosa pine that you could hardly walk through, you couldn't walk through it in a straight line. And they're all very small, so thick they can't grow like they could if they were in a more open stand. Basically it's a fire trap.
This is what most of the forest surrounding Flagstaff looked like ten years ago. But then came the fires of 1996, and a widespread recognition that the forest needed help. Paul Summerfelt is the Flagstaff Fire department's fuel management officer.
AX: ***first time that people can remember that residents of flagstaff, the community experienced catastrophic fire, it was very much a shock. Prior to 1996, it was a crime to cut a tree, nobody in their right minds would set fires. That was the mindset of the community, wildfires were things that happened out in the wildlands, away from people, they were a federal issue, forest service problem spring of 96 changed that, that belief.
That fall, recalls Summerfelt, the city of Flagstaff treated its first acre of forest.
AX: there was a plan prepared, it was marked for tree removal, remarked, field trips, council meetings, remarked again, plans developed, finally it was cut, then, ***the second step was burning, this was one of the traumatic things, fire engines in every driveway, literally you could hold hands around that one acre with the number of people there.
Now, Summerfelt says, when he does a large prescribed burn he can't even get the local media to cover it. The city itself treats 15 hundred acres of forest a year. Combined with the forest service and other agencies, about five to seven thousand acres are treated annually. That work is coordinated by the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership, made up of more than 20 government agencies, fire departments, academics, environmental groups and others.
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Director Steve Gatewood unfurls a large map in his cluttered office. It shows the city of Flagstaff virtually surrounded by different colored blocks.
Track 1, What we have here is a map prepared by the Flag fire dept of all the treatments around flag since 1998, different colors signify different treatment types, most of what you see is thin, and burn the piles, that's the blue, as you can see, it's a pretty good solid series of treatments on the west and SW side of flag, because of prevailing winds during fire season, they move what we're trying to do is get a 5 mile crescent on the SW side of town.
Gatewood says the partnership's members have reached consensus on most projects. But there have been objections from outside groups. Roxanne George is with the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, which has appealed some of the treatment plans because they would have thinned large diameter trees.
Certainly we'd advocate for always retaining the trees that are 16 inches and larger, just because they've become such a rare forest component, they've become less than 4 percent of the trees remaining on our forests in the SW, so they're almost as rare as the old growth.
Gatewood acknowledges the size cap issue has been contentious, but says for the most part the partnership has found common ground with environmental groups. A bigger issue, according to Ethan Aumack of the Grand Canyon Trust, is the lack of capacity to do more.
we've got big problems, the problems have been building for more than a century, right now we're working on the fringes. We've spent 9 years planning out restoration treatments and community protection treatments around community, right now with current budgets and current federal priorities for spending, we're not getting the kind of money we need to flag to get the kind of treatments we need on the ground.
The Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership estimates it needs 275 million dollars to implement its community wildfire protection plan on the 900 thousand acres of forest surrounding town. The Coconino National Forest is currently allocated only 3 to 4 million dollars a year for treatment projects. As Steve Gatewood puts it, Flagstaff is a lot better off than it was four years ago, but there's still a long road to hoe.
For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Flagstaff.