Most of us are aware that we’re experiencing an exceptionally dry year. Depending on where you live, you may have received only 10% to 40% of average annual precipitation. Our monsoon season ended early in 2017. Our winter precipitation was significantly below normal. The dangerously dry conditions have prompted the Forest Service to put Stage 2 fire restrictions into effect, prohibiting any fires, smoking or fireworks in the entire forest. On May 23, Stage 3 restrictions were put into effect, closing the Fossil Creek area. If these unusual conditions persist, additional sections of the forest may be closed by Stage 3 restrictions, as happened in 2002.
Friends of the Forest volunteers are out working in the forest daily, maintaining trails, removing graffiti, conducting studies, patrolling trails and acting as docents at our heritage sites. We see first-hand the dangers present and the need to keep safety in mind as we enjoy outdoor activities. We notice that oak brush is already dropping leaves as a defense mechanism against drought. We see the abundance of dead grass that can act as tinder. The Forest Service is so concerned about the dangers that firefighters from other states are already being staged to northern Arizona.
Responding to fires is complex. To give some perspective, in the first 4 months of 2018, there were 34 human caused fires in the Coconino National Forest but only 2 fires that were naturally caused by lightening. In addition, the Forest Service deliberately ignited 33 prescribed and controlled burns of about 14,000 acres.
Human caused fires are always extinguished as soon as possible, as they’re not part of the natural ecosystem and do not occur where a burn will be beneficial. While human caused fires are caused by abandoned camp fires, and sometimes by arson, most are along roads and highways and are caused by sparks, cigarettes or hot mufflers. If you drag a tow chain on the road, sparks can ignite a fire, as can a blown tire that causes you to drive on your rim. While it’s obvious you should never toss a cigarette out the window, it’s less obvious that if you pull over into high dry grass, your hot muffler can start a fire. You may even want to carry a couple of gallons of water in your trunk in case you come across a very small roadside fire.
Travis Mabery, Assistant Fire Management Officer for the Coconino National Forest notes that “we continue to have a tremendous number of abandoned campfires”. If you come across an abandoned camp fire that is simply smoldering and does not present an immediate threat, he asks you to report it by calling 911 or 928-527-3552 right away. If there’s any active fire, you should call 911 immediately.
A controlled burn is a carefully planned activity that has dual purposes, to lessen the chance of catastrophic fire by reducing fuel build-up, and to foster forest regeneration in areas where fire is necessary for new growth. Some pines absolutely require fire for cones to open to disburse their seeds. Without fire, those pine forests cannot persist. For these reasons, the Forest Service is increasing the number of acres that are kept healthy through controlled burns and by manually removing tinder. In 2018, 35,000 to 40,000 acres will be managed this way on the Coconino National Forest.
When a fire is naturally caused by lightening, the Forest Service continually evaluates the situation and adjusts their tactics in response to the situation. Our part of the country has among the highest incidents of lightening caused fires, most of which burn themselves out due to the monsoon rains that accompany the lightening.
Mabery stresses that illegal and irresponsible flying of drones presents a critical danger. If someone flies a drone in the airspace above or around a fire, officials have no choice but to suspend aviation support activity. Unfortunately, this happens on nearly every large fire, and threatens the safety of air crew, fire fighters, and the public. Recently, firefighting aircraft temporarily stopped flying because of a consumer drone in the vicinity of the Tinder fire near Payson that burned well over 12,000 acres, 8,000 of which burned in one afternoon. The Tinder fire was caused by an abandoned campfire.
Flying a drone near a wildfire is illegal and unsafe. In fact, this March a drone crashed and burned in Kendrick Park north of Flagstaff, igniting a 355 acre wildfire. If you fly drones, never ever fly them anywhere near a fire.
Fire season in Arizona is a time for all of us to think carefully about our responsibility to preserve and protect the Coconino National Forest.
Serving Sedona, written this week by Craig Swanson of Sedona Friends of the Forest, appears Wednesday in the Sedona Red Rock News.