Arizona is still mourning the June 30 loss of 19 “hotshot” firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire, and while it will be a while before we know exactly what happened, we do know that the fire spread very quickly — much like the other recent wildfire in the Prescott area. That blaze, the Doce Fire northwest of Prescott, is now almost fully contained, as is Yarnell Hill. But if previous fire seasons are any indication, these won’t be the only dangerous wildfires Arizona faces this year.
As detailed in a recent Associated Press story, reduced federal funding for “fuels reduction” programs, such as prescribed burns, could make wildfires more severe and difficult to fight. Before the Yarnell Hill Fire broke out, we spoke with Cathie Schmidlin, a Southwestern Region spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, to learn how budget cuts could affect Arizona this fire season.
If more money had been spent on prevention, might Arizona’s recent wildfires have been less severe, or easier to control?
When wildfires occur, a lot of factors come into play, including weather, fuels conditions and terrain, so it isn’t really possible to speculate about [specific wildfires]. What we do know is that we have many examples of places, including Arizona, where reducing hazardous fuels has helped moderate fire behavior, made fires easier to control and made it easier for firefighters to protect lives, homes, and communities.
In 2006, the Forest Service initiated a program to evaluate the effectiveness of prescribed fire and mechanical treatments designed to reduce the risk of wildfire. When a wildfire starts within, or burns into, a fuel-treatment area, an assessment is conducted to evaluate the resulting impacts on fire behavior and fire suppression actions. In 2011, the Forest Service made the effectiveness assessment mandatory whenever a wildfire impacts a previously treated area.
Results show that, of almost 1,200 cases in the database, 93 percent of the fuel treatments were effective in changing fire behavior or helping with control of the wildfire; 56 percent of these fuel treatments were effective in helping keep wildfires less than 10 acres; and 61 percent were effective in helping keep wildfires less than 20 acres.
Because our capacity to treat fuels with prescribed fire and mechanical treatments is not adequate to restore all national-forest lands in need, it is especially important that wildfire itself be used as a tool, where possible, to restore forests. Appropriate wildfire response can include a range of actions from aggressive suppression to confinement, point protection and monitoring.
Are there areas of Arizona that could benefit from more prevention funding?
An emphasis, for more than a decade, in Arizona has been to treat hazardous fuels to reduce the risk of unwanted fire on communities, livelihoods, municipal watersheds and infrastructure. Treatments are focused in areas where risk is high, risk can be effectively mitigated, and communities are committed to implementing changes to become more fire-adapted.
Areas of focus in Arizona include the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto, and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests), White Mountain Stewardship (Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests) Rim Communities (Tonto National Forest), Flagstaff Watershed Restoration Plan (Coconino National Forest), and Prescott Basin (Prescott National Forest).
We’ve had two gigantic wildfires (Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow) in the last decade. If funding cuts continue, could we be looking at another Wallow Fire somewhere else in Arizona in the near future?
The Wallow Fire actually was less severe due to treatments. The fire became easier to control in several areas that had been treated near Alpine, enhancing firefighters’ ability to protect property there.
We really can’t speculate about the impact of any future funding reductions. Reducing hazardous fuels is key to reducing the risk of extreme wildfires, and we will continue to do our best with the funds we have available.
The role and importance of fire in Southwestern forests is well-documented. Fire history (footprint of fire) directly affects fire severity, and it serves as a metric in anticipating future fire severity.
—Noah Austin, Associate Editor