Every spring people ask us (the Forest Service) if we are ready for fire season. Some might say we can only know the answer after the season is over. But I believe we can be ready for wildfires; in fact, we must be ready, knowing events won’t always turn out exactly how we would like.
Uncharacteristic wildfires can be devastating to natural resources and our communities. This year’s fire season is showing us that first hand. Too many trees and unhealthy forest conditions, a dry winter and spring, above average temperatures, low humidity, and near constant wind events created extremely dry vegetation — vegetation that was ready to burn. If you’ve lived in the Southwest for any length of time, it’s easy to realize all of the conditions favored a potentially long and difficult fire season.
And we got it.
We, in the wildland fire business, take our charge to protect life, property and the natural resources very seriously. That means taking actions to prevent fires from starting in the first place and being prepared when they do start.
We restricted camp fires and other activities when the risks for fire increased, and when conditions became too extreme on some forests, those forests are now closed to public use. The hot, dry and windy conditions told us we needed to be prepared earlier than normal for fire season. We brought in firefighters and equipment three to four weeks early and made sure helicopters and air tankers were in close proximity.
But restrictions, closures and securing resources early are not cure-alls. We need each of you to take personal responsibility to stop fires from starting — of the 316 wildfires that have occurred in Arizona thus far in 2011, 310 were human-caused.
It’s also important to recognize what our efforts and firefighters achieve in the face of adversity, and that there are successes to be thankful for along the way. We are blessed with committed individuals both inside and outside the Forest Service who risk their lives every day to minimize the impact of wildfires.
With nearly 800,000 acres burned this spring on national forests in Arizona (and more each day), thousands of threatened homes and businesses have been saved. The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire at 469,000 acres destroyed over 450 homes. In comparison, we were able to save approximately 2,680 homes of the over 2,700 threatened by the Wallow Fire; and only nine homes were lost out of about 300 that were threatened across six communities and numerous isolated ranches by the Horseshoe Two Fire.
Heroic efforts of local, state, and federal firefighters were aided in these successes by the previous removal of trees to thin forests in and around communities. Many individual homeowners worked hard to “firewise” their homes. Thinning done around the towns of Alpine, Nutrioso and Eager, as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, are being credited with protecting those communities from the extreme fire behavior of the Wallow Fire. Likewise, homes in and around Cottonwood Canyon, Portal and Turkey Creek all benefited from previous thinning and prescribed burns when the Horseshoe Two fire approached.
Fire hit these areas with incredible force but the flames dropped down to something more manageable in the thinned areas. Fewer trees in more natural patterns with appropriate spacing result in fires that burn primarily on the ground or with more moderate behavior, and at a slower pace. This allows firefighters to safely attack the fire more directly, minimizing its impacts and allowing for protection of property and other resources.
Fire is a natural and important part of southwestern forest ecosystems, so we will never eliminate all impacts from fire. But we can minimize those undesirable impacts by restoring our forests to a more healthy condition; a condition that supports lower intensity fires that are easier to manage and benefit the forests.
We have accomplished some good things but they aren’t nearly enough. We need innovative thinking, committed partners and a vibrant wood products industry to achieve our goal and overcome financial and other challenges we face. Federal resources alone will never be sufficient. We need you to observe restrictions and closures and do your best to make your homes defensible (www.firewise.org).
• Corbin Newman is the Regional Forester for the Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service