The Fire Next Time

UPDATE: The Senate subcommittee on the public lands held hearings on the Wallow Fire in the first week of August, at which Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified about the recovery plans the agency is pursuing in the huge fire's aftermath. In addition to removing dead, standing trees along roadways, it is already far along in its work to re-seed and mulch upwards of 80,000 burned acres.

An Arizona sunset seen through smoke from the Wallow Fire

A wildland fire is never just a fire. Even as it burns through forests, grasslands, or chaparral, it also eats into the political landscape, like acid on a copper plate. And in that etching, with the surface opened up, we can glimpse a society's most basic philosophical commitments, its deepest operating assumptions. Underscoring this point is one of this summer's biggest to date: the Wallow Fire.
It started on May 29, perhaps after campers abandoned a still-hot campfire in the Bear Wallow Wilderness on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona; from that small ignition point, it raced outward to become the single largest in the state's history. During its harrowing month-long run, and fueled by strong winds, scorching temperatures, and microscopic levels of humidity, the Wallow blackened more than 538,000 acres, roughly 841 square miles. (As a point of comparison, the monstrous 2009 Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California took out 250 square miles).

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Its size and devastation aside, and notwithstanding the tremendous smoke column it produced that stretched all the way to the Great Lakes, befouling the Middle West's air quality, the most striking thing about the Wallow was its lightening speed. To get sense for how fast it blew up, check out this kinetic timeline that the Arizona Republic created. It highlights the firestorm's rapid expansion based in part on its ability to hurl embers upwards of five to six miles in advance of its frontlines, igniting troublesome spot fires. It is no wonder it took firefighters so long to contain its energy; no wonder that in this lightly populated region more than 6500 people had to flee for their lives.
Yet few of these evacuees lost their homes; only 32 were destroyed, and but five damaged. That low number seems inconsistent with the hyperventilating reporting that occurred during the fire's top-of-the-fold status in the June news cycle. Print and electronic media could not get enough of the story.

The DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) drops fire retardant to reinforce the line above Greer, AZ

I can still hear the snap-crackle-pop 100-foot flames torched stand after stand, an admittedly terrifying sound that seemed to transfix the nightly anchors. I can still picture, lumbering overhead, the converted DC-10 (its ingenuous acronym is VLAT = Very Large Air Tanker), which carried a 12,000-gallon payload of orange-red fuel retardant: released in hopes of slowing down the fire's surge, the brilliantly colored liquid offered up a telegenic moment if ever there was one; CNN was seduced, endlessly looping this bit of pyro porn.
How was it possible, then, given this obsession with the aural and visual sensations of destruction, that there was relatively little damage to the towns that dot the eastern extent of the White Mountains?
Take a look at what happened to Alpine, Arizona. Perfectly named--the high valley its 256 residents call home sits at an elevation of 8050 feet--it is completely surrounded by the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. So when Jim Aylor, the fire management officer of the Alpine Fire District, looked up and saw the holocaust racing from tree crown to tree crown, he had every right to be worried, very worried. "The smoke column was bent over making it difficult to see," he recalled. But it was what he heard that was most ominous: as the fire roared "over the ridge toward Alpine it sounded like a freight train."
It never arrived. Instead, on the town's outskirts the fire dropped to the ground, slowing its speed-of-spread, which allowed firefighters to knock down the flames even as the main body of the fire swept around the community to incinerate the enveloping wooded terrain to the north and south. However miraculous this may seem, it was no miracle: Alpine was spared because of human intervention.
Homeowners in the preceding years, with the guidance of (and funding from) state and federal forestry agencies, had created defensible space around their property; they cleared away the understory, thinned trees, and built homes that were "firewise" to decrease the amount of fuel available to stoke wildland fires such as the Wallow. In the immediate days and hours before the fiery surge leaped into view, hot-shot crews also had conducted extensive backfiring operations that proved critical to the town's defense.
The single most important strategic move had occurred some years earlier, a consequence of the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA: P.L. 108-148). Congress had enacted the legislation to promote the thinning of forests close to human settlement due to the intensely damaging fire season of the preceding summer and fall, when more than 88,000 separate wildfires burned about seven million acres. One of them, the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski, also tore through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest; it destroyed hundreds of homes, cooked more than 450,000 acres, and earned the dubious distinction of being Arizona's largest conflagration until the Wallow.
The Healthy Forest initiative, despite its commitment to increasing fire-safety in the combustible west, has not been controversy-free. A number of environmental organizations challenged its provisions in court, believing that it would intensify timber production on the national forests and allow the Forest Service to ignore environmental regulations; in Sierra Club v. Bosworth (2007), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, rebuking the agency for excluding some small projects from filing environmental impact statements, a decision it believed was "arbitrary and capricious."
For the residents of Alpine, there was nothing random or fickle about the Forest Service spending HFRA-authorized dollars via innovative fuels-treatment programs known as the White Mountain Stewardship Contract and the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. Since 2004, the agency has annually treated 50,000 acres, a good portion of which are located in and around Alpine, Greer, Springfield, and Nutrioso, all points on the map that became highly visible when the national media aimed its telephoto lens on the Wallow's wrath.
As illustrated in the post-fire photographs in this Forest Service report on the Wallow, the fuels-treatment teams chose their plots carefully and did their work well; in Alpine, the fire lay down when it hit the thinned woods, exactly as desired; narrating this process is the shifting color of the trees, shading from charred black to vivid green.

Although not all the treated units worked equally well, in a larger sense they were an unequivocal success. Our national investment saved these towns; they stand still because we stood with them.
This declaration of interdependence, this assertion of the demonstrable benefits that come from a binding social compact, is currently under attack. Yet as the Wallow Fire illuminates, the tea-bag assault of the essential role that government plays in our lives could not be more ill-conceived or poorly timed. That's because more and more Americans are moving into the wildland-urban interface, increasing pressure on firefighting agencies at a time of politically motivated and irresponsible budget cuts.

Recreation in Lake Arrowhead, CA

Let Southern Californians be forewarned: Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, and Idyllwild, Mt. Baldy Village and Wrightwood are our Alpines. Around each of these communities, and to different degrees, fuels-treatment projects have been completed; one of them already proved its worth during the 2003 Old Fire, which threatened, but did not torch, a North Lake Arrowhead resort area.

But not enough has been done, and it has not due to the hefty price tag.
The high costs are as much a result of demography as of finance. The Southland's massive population means that tens of thousands of visitors head up into the local high country for rest and relaxation. Those numbers, and the dense built landscape that has been constructed to meet these tourists' needs--upwards of 100,000 structures crowd the mountain lakes district--complicate the use of prescribed burning and mechanical treatments to clear the thickening undergrowth.
It needs clearing, too: the Southern California forests contain so much drought-induced dead or dying vegetation, arguably the greatest die-off in the country, that the idea of "thinning" this stock is baffling: where would you start? where stop? And once cut, what would you do with the logs in a region that has no lumber mills?
These questions help explain why the treatment costs in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains are astronomical. In 2003, the average was approximately $4000 per acre, which four years later had been cut to $2000. Even that lower figure remains well above the national average, which is why without a sustained infusion of funds, these mountain towns are at considerable risk.
It won't be reduced any time soon, for the political will needed to secure the needed money for communities scattered across the forested regions of the Inland Empire or the Intermountain West is distressingly lacking.

To get the necessary funding will require a very different electorate, a very different Congress. Rather than committing ourselves to the commonweal, to one another, contemporary Republican fantasies of buccaneering individualism prevail. Instead of bolstering our governing commitments with dedicated (and robust) fiscal resources, we get a corrosive right-wing budget "compromise" that is gutting core governmental services we cannot afford to lose.
If you need a refresher course on what a conscientious government can accomplish with and for its people, study Alpine, Arizona. It is a symbol of hope in this dispiriting moment in American history. It would be nice if voters and their representatives get the message conveyed in that small town's salvation before the next wind-whipped inferno comes thundering over the ridge.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments on The Back Forty, KCET-TV's natural resources, wildlife and land use blog, every other Wednesday,

The top photo on this post is by Flickr user snowpeak. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

The middle photo on this post is courtesy of the US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. It was taken by Jayson Coil, Southwest Area Incident Management Team.

The bottom photo on this post is by Flickr user Brian Auer. it was used under a Creative Commons License.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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