Forest Fires: Can We Lessen Damage?
It’s only mid-May and Arizona already has several raging forest fires. In less than a week and involving more than 1,700 firefighters the five fires have already cost $5 Million. Fighting wildfires in rugged Arizona is fraught with danger. Hot Shot crews in the Crown King area are contending with hidden mine shafts from prospecting days. The fires awaken hostile animals including venomous snakes. In addition, the crews are dealing with hot weather now in the triple digits.
There is no doubt that the warm La Niña weather pattern with less rain and snow make for a potentially bad fire year, especially in the Southwest. With temperatures well above average, burning restrictions are already in place on most Federal Forest land in Arizona.
Though the cause of these fires is under investigation wildfires are often nature’s way of keeping a healthy forest. As we watch the line of fire march across the landscape we must ask, “Are we doing what’s best for our forests? Can we lessen the damage so that our children are able to return to these areas for recreation?
There are some who believe all forests should remain in their natural state without human intervention. Some believe good forest management means limited access to people. Past disagreements over how best to create a healthy forest ecosystem stopped programs such as clear cutting when, managers moved to the other extreme of limited use land. The unfortunate end result of both extremes is an unhealthy forest, thick with undergrowth and vulnerable to disease and severe wildfire.
Native American Tribes, considered sovereign nations, are allowed to manage forests through contracts developed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both the BIA and the Forest Service have mission goals of a healthy vibrant forest. Some argue that the tribal interest is financial only and “they prioritize timber extraction over conservation and preservation of fish, wildlife and watershed…” Tribal members will tell you that they have a long term, inter-generational investment and desire for a healthy forest.
The 2011 massive Wallow Fire of Eastern Arizona gave a unique opportunity to study the two different management systems. The fire bordered both the Fort Apache and San Carlos Reservations. As it burned from federally managed forest into the reservation land the fire slowed and was stopped. Part of the tribes’ strategy for forest management was to thin through timber extraction (logging sales) knowing that the increased tree spacing keeps fires from crowing and jumping from tree to tree and use aggressive prescribed burns to keep underbrush manageable. Further evidence that fuel treatment methods are effective can be seen in the area surrounding the tiny town of Alpine where the fire was halted due to thinning and good management.
The Wallow Fire Fuels Treatment study results are expected to show that aggressive management of the forests allow for a healthier ecosystem and trees that are better able to survive a fire. This study comes at the same time the Obama administration works with the Sierra Club and Earthjustice to promote a new management program. One would hope this administration would take the Wallow Fire study to heart and consider implementing some of the tribal strategies.
Please join Arizonans as we pray for less wind, lower temperatures and for an early monsoon. Pray also for the safety of the many firefighters who brave these difficult conditions, not for themselves, but for us. And pray that this administration will look hard at the Wallow Fire to see the benefits of the Indian management plan. Diligent management of the forests may improve the chances for tree survival and faster recovery from fire. Forest fires are a natural part of life but those with less impact will allow our children and grandchildren future enjoyment of our timbered lands.
*Photo of the Willow Fire, 2011, courtesy Jane Boyles, photojournalist.