The Case for Thinning Forests to Prevent Catastrophic Fires

by Greg Pollowitz

An interesting read in today’s Arizona Republic:

ALPINE — The power was out the night last June when the Wallow Fire crested South Mountain above town. Smoke was so thick, the flames were invisible until they blew up into the crowns of the ponderosa-pine trees on the steep slopes.

As the monster blaze advanced, chunks of fiery debris from the exploding treetops caught gusts of wind and shot into the open meadows like tiny bombs, igniting spot fires that glowed eerily until firefighters reached them. Firetrucks waited on every street

The town was under an evacuation order, one issued as residents were gathering for a community meeting, memories still fresh of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, when 465 homes burned to the ground. Most houses stood empty as the flames moved down the mountain, nearing the scattered structures that hugged the foothills above the narrow meadow.

When morning broke, Alpine still stood. As crews regrouped and surveyed the damage over the next few days, they found evidence that a project to remove thousands of trees from overgrown stands nearest the town had helped slow the fire’s movement, giving firefighters a chance to save hundreds of homes.

“It went from a crown fire to a ground fire, and the ground fire didn’t burn the trees,” said Jim Zornes, supervisor of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. “Had the treatment not happened, there would have been a crown fire down to the edge, there’s no doubt.”

On a recent May morning, a nearly straight line was clearly visible across South Mountain. Above the line, where the forests were dense and tinder-dry, only blackened sticks remained. Below the line, where the forest had been treated and thinned as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, the pines still grew green.

Ten years after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire raged through Heber, Overgaard, Linden and other White Mountain towns, land managers and community leaders want to draw their own lines. They are accelerating efforts to thin forests and protect homes and businesses, working with federal projects and starting their own.

In the high country along the Mogollon Rim, an 8-year-old effort to thin 150,000 acres has helped set the stage for an even larger project to reduce fire danger and improve forest health across the largest stand of ponderosas in Arizona. In Flagstaff, city officials want to build on a 16-year-old program, turning their attention to what happens after a fire, when damaged watersheds can cut off water supplies and flood neighborhoods.

“This isn’t somebody else’s problem. It’s ours,” said Paul Summerfelt, fuel-management officer for Flagstaff. “We either deal with it now, or we’re going to deal with it when it’s under way and afterward, and that is not the place to be. Everybody loses then.”

The rest here.

Of course, environmentalists were against the idea. From January:

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal judge has halted three tree-cutting projects in Arizona and New Mexico that environmentalists contend could harm the Mexican spotted owl.

WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2010, claiming the agency ignored its responsibility to track the owl’s numbers in the two states. The judge’s decision Thursday to grant a preliminary injunction means the projects cannot move forward until the Forest Service consults with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts to the owls.

“The bottom line is we need to know whether the spotted owl is doing well or is declining,” said Bryan Bird, the director of WildEarth Guardians’ wild places program. “And we don’t know that right now because the Forest Service has failed — and they’ve admitted it — to collect that information.”

The owl found on national forest lands, from steep wooded canyons to dense forests, was first listed as threatened in 1993. More than 8 million acres in four Western states — Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — have been set aside by Fish and Wildlife as critical habitat for the bird.

Federal biologists have said the biggest threat to the owls is destruction and modification of their nesting habitat.

Forest Service spokeswoman Cathie Schmidlin said Friday that the agency is contacting contractors and power companies to let them know of the court’s order. One of the projects is for fuel reduction in southern New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest, while a utility maintenance project stretches across a handful of Arizona forests.

The rest here.

I wonder how many owls died in the fire that raged in the unthinned forest . . . 

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