Earth Notes
10:50 pm
Mon July 17, 2006

Wildland Fire Use Fires

Tusyan –
Ambi: walking through forest

David Mills walks through the Kaibab National Forest just south of the Grand Canyon.

Lupines and bunch grasses are sprouting through a fine layer of pine needles.

Mills is a fire manager for the forest service.

He points to a partially blackened ponderosa pine with a clump of green needles sprouting at its crown.

Despite its appearance, he says the tree is in better condition now, than it was.

DM: It's got a lot of open around it now. There's going to be less competition for water and nutrients for that tree.

A small fire ran through this parcel on the Tuayan Ranger District last year.

Mills says this piece of land shows how fire can improve an ecosystem.

DM: By running some moderate intensity fire through here we knock back quite a bit of the younger ponderosas, maybe still not enough in some people's minds, but yet this is still a step in the right direction. Now future fires in this particular piece of ground under hotter drier conditions and still not do a whole lot of damage. That would be a manageable fire and it opens up more area for us to consider fire use in.

This blaze was part of the Forest Service's Wildland Fire Use Program.

When lightning ignites a fire, managers analyze weather patterns, potential property damage, firefighter safety and other risks before a blaze can become a wildland fire.

If conditions are right, they may decide not to actively suppress the fire.

But that doesn't mean, they let them burn unchecked.

Joe Reinarz is with the Northern Arizona Incident Management Team.

Crews fly over the blaze and plot out contingency plans.

JR We do not just walk away from these fires and just let them burn until they go out. It's a fire use so, if something needs to be stopped, we stop it.

It turns out the Warm Fire needed to be stopped.

It moved slowly for about two weeks.

Then the winds shifted and Crews started to fight the fire when the flames crossed designated boundaries.

The Forest Service did take some heat for not suppressing the Warm Fire right away.

For scientists like Andrea Thode, the Warm Fire may be more an example of unhealthy forests than poor fire management.

She's a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University.

AT: Our fire regimes here are pretty out of whack and areas that have had no treatments have very thick duff layers and litter layers of pine needles will experience pretty high intensity and high severity fire. So I think a good wild land fire use program creates a mosaic of treatments across the landscape and starts small.

Wally Covington agrees the program needs to be used conservatively

He's the director of NAU'S Ecological Restoration Institute in Flagstaff.

He says just because a fire is sparked naturally doesn't mean it will burn that way.

WC: That only works if you've got natural landscape conditions out there, which we haven't had for at least a hundred years. So, what we get is we get lightning ignition that although they're natural ignitions, they're not burning in a natural fuel matrix, so we get very unnatural fire effects including the death of old growth trees and loss of critical wildlife habitat.

COVINGTON says the Warm Fire could have a chilling effect on future wildland fires.

WC: there is a concern that when you let a wildland fire use fire out of control and be declared a suppression fire and you spend all that money on it that it will make the next decision where there's a wildland wild use fire that you're pretty, that you're very confident would have benefits that a manager may be reluctant to make that decision.

Forest Service spokeswoman Jackie Denk supports the way crews managed the Warm Fire.

She says the effects of the warm fire may look drastic to people now.

But in the long run it will help restore the forest back to a natural condition.

JD We need to help them understand that black isn't bad in the forest. We're convinced that within a very short amount of time, we'll start to see Aspen and other wildlife move back into that area . The wildlife already moved back in, now the plants and the trees will start moving back in.

WALLY Covington says scientists will spend the next six months to a year studying the fire's effects.

No matter what they find, he says the Warm Fire will play a role in how forest managers use wildland fire in the future.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Sasa Woodruff in Tusayan.