Time to Burn

Is the Lone Fire a preview of California-style infernos to come?

The burns in the chaparral, he contends, will rebound within two or three years and make for excellent animal habitat.

"Wildlife thrives in the burns," he says. "It knocks their feed down to where they can reach it."

Animals prefer new growth and young shoots; in the overgrown chaparral, those shoots would be high out of reach.

The problem with this environment is that it had too little fire in it for too long. And the same is true of Arizona as a whole.

Because the Lone Fire burn extends from the high Sonoran Desert at Roosevelt Lake up through the chaparral and the oak woodlands to the ponderosa pine/mixed conifer forest above 7,000 feet, it could serve as a paradigm of Arizona ecosystems. Each has a unique historic relationship with fire.

Fire was never a big component of the Sonoran Desert. There was never enough contiguous vegetation to carry it far, and so the plants there evolved without developing any resistance to fire.

Civilization changed all that. Exotic grasses followed the roads and the ranchers west providing flash fuel for fires. Though the fires often kill the native plants, the grass grows back thicker, ready to burn again, quickly converting the desert into a fire regime that looks very different from classic Sonoran Desert. Anyone who doubts this should drive the Beeline Highway, which in the last three years has become a fill-in-the-blanks game for cigarette smokers dumb enough to drive past 40 miles of burn scars and still throw their lighted butts out their car windows.

But the higher semiarid lands depend on fire to fertilize the earth and allow for new growth. Chaparral and ponderosa pine ecosystems adapted to fire, made it an important cleansing part of their evolutionary cycles.

Of the Lone Fire, which burned mostly in chaparral, Ron Moody, the Forest Service fuels management expert, said, "Mother Nature was just burning a fire-adapted environment that in places hadn't burned for 150 years. It was not a matter of if but when it would burn, and the when was a few days ago. Anytime you get a thick chaparral like that, fire is going to visit it."

Historically, the ponderosa pine forests burned every five to ten years. Those fires would linger on the landscape, sometimes all summer long, clearing the dead wood and brush and serving as population control by keeping too many seedlings from taking root. The big trees were hardly touched, protected by their thick yellow bark.

Some of the fires were set by lightning--the Mogollon Rim has one of the highest incidences of lightning of any place in the world.

And many were set by Native Americans who managed their forests with fire. The Apaches continued the tradition of controlled fire well into this half of the 20th century. The notion of mankind somehow divorced and at odds with nature is a romantic conceit. And when we nostalgically reminisce about Arizona in its "natural" state, we're ignoring that this landscape had been shaped by mankind for thousands of years. And if it had adapted itself, then mankind went and changed the regime again.

Because of the frequent fires, the forests were open and grassy--which made them attractive to ranchers and sheepherders. Because the trees were so large in diameter, they were coveted by loggers. The grazing began in the 1870s, and sheep and cattle chewed off the grass that carried the flash fires, and so the forests began to fill with brush and more trees. And turn-of-the-century foresters felt that fire should be kept out of the system--it damaged marketable timber, after all--and they embarked on a century of fire suppression.

The forests loaded to their present tinderbox compositions. Now when they light, they burn from floor to ceiling in what biologists and foresters call "crown fires."

And this is what happened to the Lone Fire: The overloaded and highly volatile chaparral burst into a firestorm that rolled into thickets of pine trees that were drier than a Christmas tree after New Year's.

The same conditions prevail all over the state, and they stem from a century's worth of environmental practices and fire exclusion.

"Fire is different in the environment than a lot of other issues," says Stephen Pyne, a professor at ASU West and the pre-eminent fire historian. "We seem to be debating how many summer homes we want, how many cattle, how many spotted owls, all these different landscapes. And fire is invading all of them. At some point, fire is not negotiable the same way that spotted owls or cattle or summer homes are."

And indeed, even if the land management agencies recognize the harmful effects of grazing and logging, pulling the cattle and the loggers can have the effect of trying to quit smoking cold turkey. The forest goes through withdrawal pangs before healing. With the cattle gone, the grass will grow longer, increasing the fire danger; without logging, the forests remain thickly overstocked.

"Unnatural systems are not resilient," says Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University. "Systems where we've accidentally or intentionally caused them to get outside of their natural environment are just not resilient. There's a high probability that when disturbances do occur in those, they're more likely to be catastrophic disturbances and set the system back thousands of years."

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