Western lawmakers and the Forest Service have long argued that depending on how a forest is managed, a wildfire can be either a natural phenomenon that is a boon to the forest ecosystem, or a costly -- and sometimes deadly -- disaster.
Now there may be additional evidence to prove their point.
Crews battling the San Juan fire, still burning in eastern Arizona, report that they have made significant headway over the past two days. This is partially thanks to a long-term forest management project that is forming pockets of safety as the blaze consumes the forests around them, they said.
The San Juan fire, which started early last week, had burned across 6,400 acres as of yesterday afternoon and was still only 5 percent contained. Dense underbrush and forest cover, tinder-dry conditions, strong winds and steep slopes in much of the burn area have proved a challenge for the hundreds of firefighters dispatched to quell the flames.
But as the fire ran up against sites within the White Mountain Stewardship Project, a public-private partnership aimed at thinning ponderosa pine stands in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, crews noted a dramatic change in the fire's behavior.
"The fire actually did drop to the ground, and the guys were able to jump on it right away and put those areas out," said Kelly Wood, a public information officer assigned to the San Juan fire and a fire marshal with the Pinetop Fire Department in Pinetop, Ariz.
Another drought year, another bad fire year in Ariz.
Located about 8 miles south of Vernon, Ariz., the human-caused wildfire threatens 96 structures on ranch property in the area, according to Wood.
Its intensity is fueled by exceptionally dry conditions in the Southwest -- the same conditions that were implicated in the tragic deaths of 19 Arizona hotshot firefighters last summer (ClimateWire, July 3, 2013).
According to U.S. Drought Monitor data, 100 percent of the state has been blanketed in drought since late March. This summer was anticipated to be an exceptionally challenging fire season in the region -- after a disappointing winter for precipitation, Arizona crews were fighting blazes in early spring, far sooner than usual (ClimateWire, April 8).
Today, "if a spark from anything hits the ground, there's a 95 percent chance it will ignite," Wood said.
But in the White Mountain Stewardship Project areas, where many young ponderosa pines had been removed, Wood said, conditions were "definitely" safer for fire crews.
"You don't want to be working in anything that has a lot of brush, a lot of trees over your head," he added.
Set up with assistance funding by the Forest Service, the stewardship project began 10 years ago in an effort to bring the timber industry back to Arizona's White Mountains, said Tom Osen, deputy forest supervisor for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. It brings in outside contractors to do the work, incentivizing the removal of younger, thinner trees that are less marketable but more prone to setting off intense wildfires.
Osen said the thinned areas not only create safer zones that crews can utilize as part of their suppression strategy, but also maximize a forest's ability to recover after the flames subside.
As the wildfire has ripped across the crowns of trees in the White Mountains, it has probably resulted in the deaths of many old-growth pines, Osen said. But in the managed areas, he added, "it's been low-intensity, so there's much less damage to soil and to the long-term effects on the forest."
Can the Forest Service afford more forest-thinning projects?
Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, said that Western forests managed like the White Mountain Stewardship Project are closer in character to how they were before settlers arrived.
"We see this throughout the West -- when you thin trees out sufficiently and conduct a prescribed burn, when a fire burns through them, there's little mortality, it drops to the ground, it becomes a more natural forest in the ecosystem," he said.
Covington said that it's not yet certain how important the project has been in helping quell the San Juan fire, but he guessed that the Forest Service's post-burn analysis will find it played a significant role.
However, such efforts cost money -- and the Forest Service hasn't had much left over in recent years thanks to the dramatically rising costs of fighting wildfires, which have forced the agency to "borrow" funds from management programs to pay for emergency operations.
This year, the Interior Department said it anticipated a $470 million shortfall in the funding needed to combat this year's wildfire season. President Obama's fiscal 2015 budget proposal includes an attempt to allow agencies to tap the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund (ClimateWire, May 2).
Arizona's forests were not spared by the agency's strained coffers. Over its 10-year contract, the Forest Service adjusted the funding available to the White Mountain Stewardship Project, and while the project's aim in 2004 was to thin 150,000 acres, just over 63,000 acres has been completed to date, according to Future Forest LLC, a contractor involved in the project.
"Obviously, if we'd have had more funding, we'd have done more acres," Osen said. "Like anything, over a 10-year period of a contract, there's just challenges -- federal budgets change."
Covington is currently researching ways the Forest Service might turn a profit with its forest thinning efforts, such as the sale of forest products for biomass energy. However, he said, it's a challenge.
"When you talk about developing a new wood utilization sector in an area, it makes the existing folks very uncomfortable," he said. "It's this whole balance ... how do you come up with a business model that matches the ecological model and the rural development models that people want to see throughout the West?"
Wherever the money comes from, Osen was adamant that funding is necessary to expand efforts like the White Mountain Stewardship Project.
"When we're able to put investments here in a long-term generational approach, we're providing for the resilience of the forest," he said. "It's proven again and again it is such a stronger investment for the American public and the taxpayer."