Wallow Fire: Three Years Later and Why Leave No Trace Matters

Photo by Kelly Kramer

Photo by Kelly Kramer

Three years ago today, two men — cousins Caleb and David Malboeuf — were camping in the Bear Wallow Wilderness when they walked away from their partially extinguished campfire. Their irresponsibility resulted in the Wallow Fire, which scorched 535,000 acres of forest. Arizonans continue to pay for their carelessness, and it’s a debt that will be passed to our children. Yes, we’ve seen signs of regrowth, but it’ll be another century before the area looks as it once did. It’s heartbreaking. But perhaps what’s even more upsetting is the fact that maybe, just maybe, the fire might not have happened at all had the Malboeufs understood and followed the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.

And now another wildfire is burning. So far, the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon has charred 20,369 acres. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning: it’s hot and bone-dry in places. And there is the very real possibility that another wildfire could eclipse Wallow. So, what can we do? Below, Arizona Leave No Trace advocate and master educator Cindy de Leon Reilly talks about Leave No Trace and why it’s time to pay attention to these seven principles.

What is Leave No Trace, and how did these principles come to be?
Our forests have always been used by people for recreation, to get out and enjoy them for various reasons. With this came various destructive behaviors in the outdoors. Some examples are leaving trash behind, feeding the animals, chopping trees down and playing with fire. We were literally killing our forests. In the 1960s, the U.S. Forest Service noticed these impacts. As recreationists and visitors, we rarely saw these effects.

The start of the Leave No Trace movement was in the 1980s, with the Forest Service and its “No Trace” program that focused on wilderness ethics and travel and camping practices.  In 1990s, the Forest Service partnered with the National Outdoor Leadership School to create a hands-on, science-based training to start educating others in outdoor skills, which reinforced the “No Trace” standards. Eventually, other outdoor for-profit and nonprofit organizations and federal land-management agencies joined the efforts and created an independent nonprofit organization called Leave No Trace Inc. and its principles.

Over the years, Leave No Trace Inc. evolved into the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The original principles evolved to include an extra principle, giving us seven total. The seven principles are:

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Dispose of Waste Properly

Leave What You Find

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Respect Wildlife

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

 This year, there have been 488 wildfires in Arizona; all but 20 or so were human caused. What is the general public missing when it comes to LNT?
Honestly, the general public does not really think about their impact when they are outdoors.  Its almost like it does not apply to them. There are two kinds of users, backcountry and frontcountry. Backcountry users, such as backpackers, are those who go to isolated areas that are not accessible by vehicles.  Most of these users are aware of the Leave No Trace principles. They learn about the principles through outdoor retailers like REI, or outdoor entities like this publication. Also, the principles are typically posted on public-land websites and at offices where one obtains recreation permits.

Frontcountry means those areas easily accessible by vehicles. These are areas such as campgrounds and nearby trails. Even though the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics partners with the Forest Service and other similar entities, and gets the word out through campsite postings and education, many outdoor frontcountry users do not read or care to practice these principles because they are only thinking about having fun. I have seen many frontcountry users ignore the rules and the principles.  Of course, not all backcountry users follow the rules, either. Is a bonfire necessary to have the campfire ambience? Is a campfire really necessary?

This week is the anniversary of Wallow Fire. What goes through your mind as you look back on that fire, and how could have LNT prevented that blaze?
It is my understanding that two men, who left their fire unattended, started the fire.  Principle 7 of Leave No Trace is Minimize Campfire Impacts.  This principle includes the following:

·      Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking, and enjoy a candle lantern for light.

·      Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans or mound fires.

·      Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.

·      Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely and scatter cool ashes. 

Had these men put out their fire completely before they left their site, then this devastating fire could have been prevented.  Even if a fire was in a campsite and within a fire ring, one should always make sure that their fire site is out cold.  Cold means that when you place your hand upon the fire site, you should feel no warmth.  Sometimes there are smoldering embers beneath the surface that we cannot see.  But if we feel for it, then a fire can be avoided.

According to the Incident Information System, the Slide Fire is human caused, though still under investigation. Long term, what do you think will happen if, moving forward, we do not implement LNT in our daily lives?
People, especially in Arizona, should understand that lands in our Southwest regions are very dry and overly sensitive to fire impacts.  Having a water shortage makes it worse.  If we do not implement Leave No Trace and its principles, the impacts of wildfire will happen more often. People will start fires anywhere, regardless of rules and conditions.  There is a common-sense attitude about the principles and education. This is to make things safer and better. Leave No Trace is not supposed to be an inconvenience. I believe that Leave No Trace and its principles have been minimizing the impact of fires in our region.

How can the public help spread the word about LNT?
Many organizations, public and private, are spreading the word about Leave No Trace. Upon learning the principles, share them and their importance.  Spreading the word is educating.

The Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics has been working hard with many organizations and corporations in supporting educational training and awareness workshops. Although the training may have a cost, depending on where you take it, from a master educator/trainer point of view, it’s worth learning and preserving the outdoors and practicing outdoor ethics.

As an Arizona advocate, I get the word out and help provide training and awareness workshops. The trainers are all volunteers and knowledgeable to give Leave No Trace.  They teach Leave No Trace through hands-on activities and games.

To learn and spread the work, request information from Leave No Trace. Contact your state advocate for options and opportunities to have Leave No Trace visit your troop or organization and help you implement Leave No Trace. The Leave No Trace trainers are volunteers. We believe in Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.  Contact me to get you the information.

And not only learn it, but practice it and share it with your organization.  It may take a while to educate, but in the long run, it will be worth it. It is a worthwhile cause.

What are some simple things the public can do now that will help protect our outdoor spaces?
Throw your trash away in designated areas. This includes food items that will attract wildlife, a safety and health issue for both the animal and us. Additionally, make sure cigarettes are fully extinguished and properly thrown away.

Do not play with matches, lighters or fire. Some people are fascinated with fire. Teach them the dangers of fire and teach then how to properly use them for when they need to use this tool.

Store flammables away correctly as directed.

Cut tree branches away from flammable areas, such as those hanging over chimneys.

Keep in mind that if you have to build a fire that is not in an established fire ring, please consider the location of your fire. Typically, tree-root systems lay as far as the tree canopy.  Do not place your fire under the canopy area, since the root system may catch on fire and travel.  This is known as root fire and is also considered very dangerous.  After your fire, put it out cold, then dismantle it and leave no trace.

Be prepared, be aware of the rules and follow them. Rules are made to protect the area and us. There may be a fire restriction or water concerns. There may be sick or dangerous animal situations in the area. Rules are made to protect the environment and us.

Talk to me about the programs your organization offers.
We have volunteer trainers who are available to share Leave No Trace with you.  There is the REI PEAK program; you can borrow these kits from REI or purchase them online. Traveling Trainers provide workshops and attend events to share Leave No Trace at no cost; just make your request for their appearance online. They are a terrific addition to any event or visit. Backyard sessions are when a trainer comes over and talks about Leave No Trace to your group. You can talk to your state advocate about scheduling these opportunities. Leave No Trace has some grant opportunities to cover educational materials and training costs.  More information on this is online at www.LNT.org. Hot Spots is a conservation-related program. It is based on nominating locations in need of major improvements due to the destruction suffered.  Then Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics will work with others to bring the location back to its original natural state.

You offer LNT principles for kids; what tips can you offer parents who want to teach their children how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly?
Working with kids is fun! We work with many kid organizations, Scouts, schools and clubs for children. The key component to teaching children is to make it short and fun. Some of the fun is through games and hands-on activities.  Create an LNT Bingo game for a hike, create a cootie catcher with the principles, and teach them to be considerate to others and their environment, as you would expect them to be at school and home. Take the online awareness course, too.

There are many resources to help teach children Leave No Trace. For example, you can go to your local REI and borrow the PEAK program.  This program was created by REI, through their partnership with the center, to provide an outdoor ethics kit to teach kids Leave No Trace.  This kit contains cards with games and materials that can be used, making it fun to learn Leave No Trace. REI also offers free workshops, often hosted by the Traveling Trainers, where they love to teach with children and other organizations about Leave No Trace.

You can contact your Leave No Trace state advocate to arrange a visit or send you Leave No Trace material for your use.

For more information, visit http://www.facebook.com/LNTAZ or http://lnt.org/get-involved/state/az.

You can also contact de Leon Reilly at: AZadvocate@lnt.org 

—Kathy Ritchie

8 Comments

Filed under Eco Issues, Mother Nature

8 responses to “Wallow Fire: Three Years Later and Why Leave No Trace Matters

  1. Good article -small point in response to where we learn about minimal impact/no trace principles when you noted: “They learn about the principles through outdoor retailers like REI, or outdoor entities like this publication.” That is patently bizarre sourcing. This stuff is learned generationally, through friends and family (or the park service literature) not nearly as often through box store companies like REI (or this publication). Just thought those, as the two sources you cited, were very odd. Enjoyed the read.

  2. Ps. But of course you are working on an excellent issue and trying to educate more through initiatives/programs, etc. Keep up the great work. Just thought generational learning -passed through families- was key to mention too. Cheers!

  3. And then there are those with the “No one’s going to tell me what to do” attitude. How does one educate that mindset?

  4. EJW

    You probably won’t post my response, but I’ll give it a try. We were devastated by the Wallow fire. We live near Alpine and it is painful to drive through areas hard hit by the fire. You have some good ideas with your LNT but you are missing the main reason we have so many big forest fires, it is because of the Forest Service’s polices on handling the forest. There have always been droughts, and yes, we are in another big one. However, there are things that could be done to prevent forest fires that the FS will not do, and I mean they WILL NOT do! They could keep manage the forest by bringing back logging. There is NO way that if we had continued logging we would have destroyed 500,000 acres of trees! The trees that would have been harvested would have been put to good use and we would still have lots of other trees still growing. But for some reason, the FS and many naturalists would rather see trees burn than be used.
    Also, the FS could keep access roads open to get to fires, but they will NOT do that. They continue to close roads which make it harder and harder to get to a fire. The quicker you can get to a fire, the quicker you can put it out. We could manage our forests like the Indian reservations do by doing more controlled burns to keep the undergrowth down, our FS does a minimal amount of prescribed burns.
    Also, if you will do some research you will see that the FS chose to let the Wallow Fire burn. The FS person in charge made that decision. It could have been stopped long before it got out of control but because it started in a Wilderness Area, so it was decided to let it burn. Yes, these two men made some poor choices but the damage could have been held to a minimum had the FS not decided to “let it burn”.
    Another thing the FS could do is to thin the forest. This would help the forest tremendously. When a fires starts in areas that were previously harvested, thinned or where controlled burns had been used, there is little damage to the trees. It is the areas where nothing preventive has happened, where the forest is decimated. The Blue Range, NW of Hannagan Meadows, was completely wiped out because no preventative measures were ever used there.
    We will continue to have huge forest fires until the FS decides to prevent them not just fight them.

    • Thanks for letting us know the other side of the story that doesn’t get press!

      • Roxanne

        Thank you EJW for your comments that express what so many of us who live in burn prone or already burned areas have known for years. We have observed first hand the results of the poor management decisions (however well intentioned they might have been). I heartily agree with you. It is truly heartbreaking and frustrating to experience the tragic losses of these “monster fires” that did not have to happen. They are a far cry from the “natural ” fires that were unfortunately suppressed for so many years. Suddenly folks have decided that fires are an important part of forest management. Now though, because the fuels in our forests have built up for so long, when any kind of burn starts, it can go intense in a short while.. We have created a huge dry pile of fuel throughout our forests. Combine that with the drought. The bonfire is ready to light! Forest management must change or we will continue to have one fire after another.Start spending $ on rebuilding logging infrastructure instead of fighting fire after fire.

  5. I was tremendously sad about the impact of the Wallow Fire. My wife was raised in Alpine and I’ve spent a large part of my life enjoying this wonderful area of Arizona. However well intended, the “Leave No Trace” principles have no hope of accomplishing much of anything as long as the Forest Service mismanages our public lands. Apparently the FS does not learn from it’s mistakes (i.e. Yellowstone, Rodeo–Chediski, etc). They keep making the same bumbling errors. From my perspective, their main priority is to restrict use of public lands, not properly manage them. I also don’t think continuing to drag the Malboeuf cousins into the discussion accomplishes anything. They’ve paid a high price for their mistake – let’s move on. Lastly, I take great umbrage with the notion that “it’ll be another century before the area looks as it once did”. This is pure FS diatribe. Escudilla Mountain burned worse in 1950 that it did in the Wallow Fire and you would have been hard pressed to notice 30 years later. The major difference between 1950 and today is that the FS allowed Escudilla to be logged-off after the 1950 fire. Today’s management technique appears to be leave the dead trees stand and spend money on signs saying that we need to watch out for falling trees – give me a break. Frankly, other than buying new green trucks on a regular basis, I’m not sure exactly what the FS will effectively accomplish in this area.

  6. Thanks for the great responses, I have shared them on facebook.

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