In 1910 a devastating wildfire tore through Idaho and Montana. In just two days’ time, the Big Blowup consumed almost three million acres of forested hillsides. Drought and high winds created the perfect conditions for a firestorm. The National Forest Service had recently been created, but fighting the fire required additional help from the US Army and the local miners. At last, a cold front brought a rain storm that put the fire out. Eight-nine lives were lost and the horrifying stories of the survivors motivated the country to create a fire suppression policy.

For most of the last century, the Forest Service put out almost every fire.  The result, unfortunately, has been severely increased forest density. The first settlers in northern Arizona described the forest as possible to ride a horse through at a full gallop.

Thick forest

Today riding at a gallop through the woods around Flagstaff would not be advisable. According to turn of the century reports from the early 1900’s, northern Arizona was mixed conifer forest with grassy undergrowth and large, open areas.  Because of the distance between the large old growth trees, when a wildfire occurred, it burned along the ground, not in the crown of the tree as today.  This allowed the trees to survive a fire, whereas today, everything is killed.

Burned hillside

You can see a burned off area at the top of this hill, with standing snags. The area below the hill was saved by fire-fighting efforts.

Arizona has a dry climate.  Arizona has experienced long drought periods in the past. When the Ponderosa Pines are distressed by lack of moisture, they are prone to the Pine Bark Beetle.  In 2010, 9.2 million acres (Out of 749 million acres of forest land in the United States) of tree mortality was caused by insects and disease. 74 % of that damage was done by the Bark Beetle. Once these stands of trees die, they are tinder waiting for the next lightning strike, careless camper, or tossed cigarette.

The problem is compounded by the number of homes built in the interface area between the forest and the urban areas.  Firefighters are put at risk to save homes from the fast-moving fires.  Much has been learned about caring for our wild lands, and one of the projects now underway is 4FRI. This is the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, working to restore the structure, pattern and composition of fire-adapted ecosystems, which will provide for fuels reduction, forest health, and wildlife and plant diversity. 4FRI aims to implement comprehensive restoration over the next twenty years, including thinning of predominantly small trees across one million acres, and safe controlled burning and natural fire management on much of the landscape.

Downed Ponderosas

Bark Beetle-downed trees

Dry slash pile

Slash piles ready for burning

Fire from car

A controlled burn

Hopefully 4FRI is a solution for implementing landscape-scale forest restoration. It is a problem that will take twenty years or more to solve, with new fires happening each year.  Home owners in the urban interface areas attempt to clear areas around their homes, and create emergency plans for escape should a fire start.

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