Burning a natural means of thinning trees - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Burning a natural means of thinning trees

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Posted: Saturday, June 24, 2006 12:20 am | Updated: 3:49 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The images of the Brins fire paint a horrific picture. Animals fleeing. Smoke billowing. Giant flames consuming a thick forest in the scenic canyon of red rocks. But people often don't see the good side of a fire, which is in fact an essential force in nature.

This idea seems counterintuitive, especially at a time when hundreds of firefighters are racing to stop a fire before it destroys homes or, worse yet, races through Oak Creek Canyon toward Flagstaff.

But fires can thin forests and make them recover more quickly after future fires.

"Fires can be very good if they're burning under the right conditions," said Raquel Romero of the Coconino National Forest, where the fire is burning. "Historically, fire has naturally kept the forest thinned."

Forests have grown too thick because of excessive suppression of fires over the last century, officials said. The forest near Oak Creek is too overgrown and too dry, so fires there are likely to burn too hot and kill nearly everything. That's one reason why firefighters are trying to put out the blaze.

"If it was in fact a good fire, we would manage it differently," state forester Kirk Rowdabaugh said. "But the Brins fire isn't a good fire."

The fire was nothing but bad when it burned 1,000 acres on its first day, Romero said. The fire burned so hot that it will probably sterilize the soil and make it vulnerable to erosion. It could take a century for a healthy, attractive forest to return, Romero said.

The fire has burned slower and cooler since then. After the fire is out, foresters will find areas where it did what a fire should:Thinning underbrush and dead material so the forest has fewer, but healthier, plants.

Arizona had at least three fires this week that foresters considered good fires. They got little public attention, but officials are trying to raise awareness of efforts to let lightning-caused fires burn as they would before European settlers began suppressing them.

Foresters even took tourists to a fire this week on a portion of the Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon. Rangers drove people close to the Warm fire near the community of Jacobs Lake and explained its role.

"People think fire and think raging inferno. That doesn't have to be," said Jackie Denk, a Kaibab fire information officer. "Fire is and can be part of the natural landscape."

The Warm fire, moving slowly and not too high, has burned nearly 13,000 acres as of Friday and required far fewer firefighters than high-intensity blazes like Brins. Crews are keeping an eye on it and making sure it doesn't cross roads or become a threat.

Forest thinning efforts are controversial because generations have grown accustomed to thick forests and think that's how nature intended them to be. And environmental groups have tried to block the thinning over fears the timber industry will use the procedure as a means to exploit the resource.

Controlled burns aren't always popular either, Denk said. Communities object to smoke and don't like the charred look. But forests recover quickly afterward. Underbrush will burn off and the larger plants will be healthier. Within months, new growth will return.

"Most fires are not as damaging to the landscape as a lot of people think they might be," Denk said.

The U.S. Forest Service has changed the iconic message of Smokey Bear to reflect that. Messages about preventing forest fires began appearing during World War II amid fears that forest fires could destroy a natural resource in wartime. The Forest Service first used posters featuring Smokey in 1944. Children since then got Smokey's message: Only you can prevent forest fires.

The message worked — and it carried an unintended consequence. Generations of Americans grew up thinking all forest fires were bad, even natural ones. So forest officials decided a few years ago that Smokey should have a more nuanced message: Only you can prevent wildfires.

"Smokey Bear is much more open minded," Denk said.

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