Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Fighting Fire with Fire: Burn Saves Town

It was a scene that has played out all too often across the West in recent years: a wildfire roars to life, forcing people from their homes and charring thousands of acres of forestland. This time it was in late June of 2014 just south of the small east-central Arizona community of Vernon. Massive plumes of smoke billowed into the sky and flames jumped from treetop to treetop in the White Mountains as the San Juan Fire raced across nearly 7,000 acres.

Wind gusts up to 25 mph propelled the fire through a forest parched by drought. Firefighters could do little as the fire behavior became extreme, with 100-foot flames burning as much as 6 miles an hour and embers spotting a half a mile out ahead. But the fiery fury of Mother Nature ran into a roadblock, of sorts, in the form of a series of forest thinning projects sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its partners. When the flames hit those areas previously treated by thinning and prescribed burns, the spread rate slowed to 1-2 miles per hour, flames dropped to just 8-12 feet and the fire was spotting just 150-200 feet ahead. 

Low intensity back burn in previously treated  area
“One of the first pieces of information from the San Juan Fire Incident Management Team was the account of the fire laying down when it hit areas of treatment in the pine,” said Jim Zornes, forest supervisor for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

One of those treatment areas lay at the north end or “head” of the San Juan Fire. Dubbed the Coon Mountain prescribed burn, a multi-year collaborative effort between the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona Game and Fish, Eastern Arizona Resource Advisory Committee and the RMEF, it was completed just two years earlier and positively affected more than 1,000 acres. The goal was to use prescribed burns to restore meadows, improve forage quality and quantity, and reduce hazardous fuels. 

High intensity burn within untreated area
The Coon Mountain burn was part of a larger effort known as the White Mountain Stewardship (WMS) program, designed to reduce fuels through thinning across the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. In Game Management Unit 1 (GMU 1) fire was part of the design of partnership projects to restore and enhance winter range for elk and other wildlife. Some of the projects overlapped in the WMS and the Forest Service was able to burn areas where projects had been completed. The 3,500-acre Iris Springs prescribed fire, also completed in 2012, was funded entirely by RMEF. Just across the way the Garris Knoll project (still in progress) covers 5,400 acres. So far, RMEF has contributed $40,000 to assist overall GMU 1 projects and committed another $80,000 for ongoing and future habitat enhancement work. That commitment helped leverage other partner funds and build support for future fire treatment activities on landscapes that need it.

Control line on San Juan Fire
“It is, and has been, wildly successful. Those continued partnership activities are what it is going to take to continue to make advancements in protecting communities and resources in the White Mountains,” added Zornes.

Fire is not just good for elk habitat, it’s essential. But in areas like this where fire has long been absent due to fire suppression, there can easily be way too much of a good thing. Thinning and prescribed burns allow foresters to restore healthy habitat while keeping people and their property safe. 

The success of RMEF collaborative projects in providing great forage for wildlife and slowing catastrophic wildfire goes way beyond the San Juan Fire. Another recent example occurred in October of 2012. The 340,000-acre Mustang Fire threatened several small, unincorporated towns in east-central Idaho and a nearby ski resort on the Idaho-Montana border. Officials credited the Hughes Creek thinning project, a 13,000-acre community-driven forest health effort funded in part by RMEF, for giving firefighters a location where they could confidently set up a last line of defense to dig in and stop the flames.

Mustang Complex Fire 2012
"The fuels treatments in the Hughes Creek area implemented by the North Fork Ranger District were put to the test during the Mustang fire," said Danny Montoya, Mustang Fire Team Operations Chief. "I firmly believe that they provided us with the opportunity to steer the fire away from the Highway 93 Corridor and the Lost Trail Ski Area." 

So far, all across elk country RMEF has helped fund more than 1,100 thinning and burning projects to greatly improve habitat on more than 1.3 million acres.

"These projects are win-win for everyone," said David Allen, RMEF president and CEO. "Not only do they have a positive impact for firefighters, but the on-the-ground work itself improves vital habitat, travel corridors, and forage for elk and other wildlife."

And that’s a winning formula for forestland and wildlife whether in Arizona, Idaho or anywhere across elk country.

Mark Holyoak
RMEF Director of Communication

Aerial view of area impacted by San Juan Fire. Background shows high intensity fire which transitions to
low intensity fire in treated ponderosa pine stands at lower elevation. 


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