Forest Thinning in Arizona Wildfires Likely Saved Many Homes and Dollars

Written by Marcos Robles on . Posted in Extreme weather, Learn

In the heat of the recent Wallow Fire, now Arizona’s largest fire on record, Sue Sitko, The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Arizona Conservation Manager, was granted access to visit some local towns that were directly threatened by the fire.

Much of the forested area around these towns had been thinned as part of the White Mountain Stewardship project, an effort aimed at minimizing fire risk and creating local jobs. What she saw was remarkable – the steeper mountain slopes were charred and blackened, but the pre-treated areas around the towns were “ribbons of green.” As fire fighters described later to her, when the fire hit the treated areas, flame lengths dropped and the pace of the fire slowed, resulting in much less severe effects and making fire suppression efforts more effective. Treated areas also allowed fire-fighters to conduct “back burns,” a technique used to reduce fuels before raging fires hit an area. While it is still early, the number of homes and buildings destroyed in the Wallow Fire amounts to only 10 percent of the structures destroyed in the similar-sized Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002. It is more than likely that forest thinning played a role in this decrease.

As Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona remarked in a recent House Committee hearing on wildfires, “…the cost of fighting the fires and reconstruction afterwards far exceeds the prevention costs.”

Fighting fires is expensive. As of June 28, the Wallow and Monument fires in Arizona have cost $117.9 million for fire suppression alone. Roughly half of the Forest Service’s $5.5 billion budget is spent on fire management. And collectively as a nation, we are spending four times as much fighting fires as we do on creating healthy forests and woodlands that are resilient to fire.

So, what can we do about these impacts? While it may take months before we know the full extent of damage, we already know enough about the science, the economic costs and the forest management options to act today. In fact, several Conservancy chapters in the Southwestern U.S. have already begun to act by forming the Southwest Climate Change Initiative. This group recently completed a regional report that describes how higher temperatures have combined with drought conditions to increase the size and impact of natural disturbances like fire and forest tree mortality.

We found that the majority of the region’s forests, grasslands, and woodlands have already been impacted by these conditions and climate change projections suggest that natural disturbances are likely to increase in the future. To help identify appropriate actions to respond to our changing landscapes, the initiative has shared these findings with land and wildlife managers in four pilot landscapes. Remarkably, we’ve discovered that we already use many restoration tools that can help minimize some of the risks and boost ecosystem resilience. However, we still have work to do to determine how we use these tools to meet the scale of the challenge.

We are learning that our response is going to require some or all of these elements: restoring forests and woodlands at the largest scale imaginable, innovating science and policy, and working together in unprecedented ways. Building from successes in the White Mountains, the Conservancy is working with the U.S. Forest Service and others in Arizona to safely reintroduce fire across millions of acres in the Sky Islands mountain ranges (Firescape) and in the Mogollon Rim (Four Forest Restoration Initiative).

These partnerships are fostering innovations in science and policy. We are finding new ways to balance compliance with environmental regulations, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, while having the flexibility to restore forests at larger scales. We are also working on long-term stewardship contracting – which is a way to create jobs and cut costs to taxpayers in half (the U.S. Forest Service exchanges the trees, branches, and other biomass with contractors for the service of its harvest and removal). Complemented by expertise from university and nonprofit staff, forest managers are prioritizing and fine tuning actions based on data from field plots and output from predictive tools. Our shared body of knowledge is helping us learn more about reducing fire impacts at a time when landscapes are seeing considerable changes within short time spans.

The scale of recent wildfires in Arizona and the threats posed to local communities and their surrounding environments have created an urgent need for action. We have the building blocks in place, but must now aim toward a new level of focus and commitment by community leaders, stakeholders, and agencies to bring the resources, agreements, and resolve needed to make a difference in a time frame that matters.

Marcos Robles is a conservation science specialist. His co-authors on this article are Edward Smith, a program manager for forest conservation and restoration, and Robert Marshall, director, center for science and public policy. All three work for The Nature Conservancy in Arizona.

Top photo by Edward Smith/The Nature Conservancy (Staff of The Nature Conservancy work with federal, state, and local partners to thin trees and reintroduce fire to ponderosa pine forests in Arizona.)

Bottom photo by Sue Sitko/The Nature Conservancy (Forest thinning and health are evident where steeper mountain slopes were charred and blackened, but the pre-treated areas around the towns were “ribbons of green.”)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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