Time to Burn

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

Like the calm in the eye of a storm, like a tornado that rips the roof and walls off a house without disturbing a breakfront full of fine china, the forest clearing where the Lone Fire started on April 27 is strangely unburned.

The oaks and pines bordering the trail are still green; dry leaves blow across the drainage where some mindless fool tossed a cigarette or left a campfire unattended. From there the fire quietly crackled into the brush.

But it roared out the other side, rushing uphill through a stand of ponderosa pine, vaporizing hundred-year-old trees. Then it tore through the wilderness for 11 days until it finally flickered out.

From the pine stand, the fire climbed to within 500 feet of Four Peaks' 7,645-foot summit. It whirled south around the mountain, within sight of Apache Lake, howled frightfully through the desert and chaparral on the western slopes that lead down to the Beeline Highway, burned through Buck Basin, and ran its hundred-foot-high flames for seven miles straight at Punkin Center, which is more a jumble of cafes, gas stations and double-wide trailers on Highway 188 than a town. Then the fire stopped short, changed its mind and followed the wind back to the south, gobbling up more chaparral, edging all the way down to the road that skirts Roosevelt Lake before it burned itself out.

It took a thousand firefighters to corral it; no one would suggest they actually extinguished it--they might just as well have tried to catch a tidal wave in a teacup.

"As far as trying to put the fire out when it's making a run up the slope, you just don't do that," says Ron Moody, a fuels management officer for the U.S. Forest Service's regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The best the firefighters could do was try to contain the blaze to keep it out of the pines up top and the Sonoran Desert down below. That effort cost at least $5 million. And when the smoke cleared, more than 61,000 acres had been razed by the largest fire in Arizona's collective memory.

The Four Peaks Wilderness Area took a direct hit. About 90 percent of the ponderosa pine forest up top--relicts from a big fire in 1959--was decimated. The big yellow pines and the thick understory of juniper and oak trees had been reduced to a black-velvet painting. The ash on the trail was shin deep. White lines on the ground showed where trees had fallen and incinerated; some had evaporated completely, leaving smoking holes in the ground.

For all the hype and coverage the fire received, it was in fact less environmentally devastating than last summer's Rio Fire in north Scottsdale. The Rio Fire scoured 23,000 acres of prime Sonoran Desert, including nearly all of McDowell Mountain Park, leaving blackened saguaros and the twisted skeletons of paloverde trees. Neither of those plants, nor most other desert denizens, has any resistance to fire. It was never part of their evolution, unlike the ecosystems at higher elevations that, until this century, burned regularly, lighted by lightning storms and Native American burnings.

The vast majority of the Lone Fire, however, 80 percent by Forest Service estimates, raged through chaparral, the thick tangle of brush that grows at middle elevations.

Chaparral is supposed to burn, in fact, needs to burn for its own rejuvenation.

The fire tumbled down into the desert stretches--15 percent of the total--mostly in the early morning hours when fires burn at the coolest temperatures, and so they were spared the cactus-broiling hell of the Rio Fire.

But the pines in the sky island below the Four Peaks summit were not so lucky. Many trees that survived the 1959 blaze had been attacked by other predators; their scorched trunks still show the clawlike branches symptomatic of dwarf mistletoe infestation. Unlike the yellow pine giants in Flagstaff and on the Mogollon Rim, these trees were small in diameter. In other words, it was a forest under stress, badly overgrown, a fire waiting to happen.

"It was on its way to becoming an oak woodland," as one Forest Service ranger put it.

Although the daily newspapers have screamed in headlines that it will take the forest 150 years to recover (the length of time it takes for a ponderosa pine to mature), such generalized statements assume that nature, like some anal architect, sets about to rebuild a carbon copy of what was destroyed.

It doesn't. One species succeeds another, depending as much on the laws as the accidents of nature--or on the laws and accidents of mankind.

The oak trees will sprout from their charred stumps. The pines will not; they will have to seed from the surviving trees, and it's too early to say how many will survive. From a high vantage point, the peaks seem draped in a striped Navajo blanket with ruler-straight edges where one color ends and the next begins: a wide black stripe of burned trees next to a brown stripe of scorched trees next to a green stripe of living trees. How many of the latter will live through the coming attacks of insects and drought remains to be seen.

But there are also flourishing stands of aspens, pockets of giant oaks, lone fir trees. And within the perimeter of the big burn is an untouched 5,000-acre island that was spared partly by the freakish nature of winds and weather, and partly by the patches that the Forest Service had already burned in earlier years as a preventive measure.

But if the fire's damage is not uniformly terrifying, the fire's intensity was.

"It's something that none of us has ever seen before," says Jeff Whitney, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and expert wildland firefighter. Whitney was flown in from Albuquerque to serve as incident commander for the interagency team that battled the Lone Fire, and he also led the fight against the Rio Fire.

During the last several decades, wildland fires have become more frequent and have gobbled up more and more acreage. And within the last three years, they have increased dramatically in intensity. The Lone Fire and the Rio Fire have been towering conflagrations that many wildland firefighters are calling California-style fires.

That the Lone Fire lighted in April is perhaps most troubling of all. Historically, lightning fires have abounded in Arizona in June and July, in the early weeks of the monsoon. If there have always been frequent fires, at least they occurred at a time of the summer when the relative humidity and the chance of rain were greater. Those fires would have burned at a lower intensity and cleaned out the brush and deadfall on the ground.

By May, 1996 had become the worst year on record for fire danger in Arizona. The Energy Release Component, a measure of moisture in vegetation that basically describes how flammable it is, has already passed the record low set in 1974, and that record was set 40 days later in the summer.

Part of the reason the Rio Fire burned so hotly out of control was because firefighters had to throw manpower and equipment between the flames and north Scottsdale housing developments. And while the firefighters were busy protecting houses, the fire escaped in the other direction into the roadless McDowell Mountains and the county park beyond.

There was some fear that the Lone Fire would race into Punkin Center and threaten homes as well, but it turned out to be unfounded. Ultimately, there were no structures in the way of the Lone Fire other than a microwave-transmitting tower and a cabin owned by the Game and Fish Department.

But if a similar fire had started in similarly thick chaparral below Prescott or Payson and roared up into the forested homesites of those towns, it could have been a major disaster.

And summer hasn't even begun.
"After we just lost 60,000 acres, a lot of us are looking at each other and saying, 'Jesus, what's it going to be like by the end of the year?'" Whitney asks. "Is there going to be anything left to burn?"

Linny Warren wrestles a Forest Service truck up El Oso Road on the northeastern edge of the Lone burn. Every few minutes, a dust devil spins off the black and barren hills.

A wispy gray column rises from an unburned point on the tree line, barely distinguishable at first from the tiny tornadoes.

"That's a smoke over there," he drawls, and he gets on his radio to call for a hotshot crew to track it down and put it out, lest it start the fire back up again.

Warren's round face is edged by his long red sideburns, bisected by a big red mustache. He's acting district ranger for the Tonto Basin Ranger District, a 23-year veteran of the Forest Service, and as such a veteran of just as many years of wildland fires. He served as Jeff Whitney's second in command at the Rio Fire, fought in the initial attack of the Lone Fire, and then slotted right into the interagency team that Whitney brought again from Albuquerque.

Until the fire, this site was choked thick with scrub oak and mountain laurel, manzanita and mountain mahogany, and all the other shrubs that make up chaparral.

The road's name, "El Oso," means "bear," and before the fire it was home to 75 to 100 bears, about one per square mile; most of them probably fled at the first scent of smoke, chased away by Smokey Bear.

"Fire is the number one thing in that ecosystem," Warren says. But much of it hadn't been allowed to burn for 40, 50 years or longer, and so when it finally burned, it burned big.

"We didn't want it to burn that hot, but there wasn't anything we could do about it," Warren continues. "It was going through like a ball of flame. There was hundred-foot-high flames, 200-foot-high flames. It was just rolling in the lower stuff and just ate up the timber that was in the way."

Warren's specialty is in watershed and soil management, and when he pulls over the truck he points out the white patches superimposed on the black ash that show where the fire burned hot enough to sterilize the soil beneath.

One of Tonto National Forest management's concerns was that this intense fire had baked the soil so badly that vegetation would not grow in it. That proved not to be the case. Warren, however, frets that the next big rain will carry ash and soil down into Roosevelt Lake.

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."

Given the slow growth and reseeding of ponderosa pine, the pine forest atop Four Peaks, for example, may take that long to regenerate--if at all.

To prevent such catastrophes, Covington believes that most forests need to be thinned mechanically to remove the smaller-diameter trees and brush and then burned and replanted in grass, and most environmentalists and land management agencies agree with him. It is a dauntingly expensive and time-consuming proposition.

Indeed, during the 1980s, the land management agencies realized that they had to introduce controlled fires back into the landscape to reduce the fuel-loading problems. Their "fire control officers" became "fire management officers."

As an indicator of how effective prescribed burning is, consider that the 5,000-acre island of unburned vegetation within the Lone Fire perimeter mostly consisted of land that had been deliberately burned within the last three years by the Forest Service. The vegetation in the earlier burns is already thick enough to provide wildlife food and cover, but thin enough to slow or stop the big flames.

In Arizona, 100,000 to 150,000 acres are treated this way every year as the land management agencies try to run a race against wildfire. But the practice has its problems.

Weather conditions have to be perfect--moist enough, cool enough--to keep the fire from escaping. The wind has to be blowing in the right direction because smoke from the prescribed fires throws a lot of particulate matter into the atmosphere, compromising air quality. Under many weather conditions, smoke in the forests follows the watersheds--the Salt and Verde rivers, for example--right down to Phoenix where it sits.

Before they can burn, the agencies must apply for the appropriate permits with the Environmental Protection Agency and negotiate aesthetic as well as other community issues regarding smoke.

"The other problem is the public's attitude toward smoke," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club. "The very fires that are best for the ecosystem--slow broadcast burns--are the ones that create the most smoke. The burns that are the best for the environment are the ones the public hates most."

Not only does prescribed burning run afoul of the Clean Air Act, but it also collides with the Wilderness and Endangered Species acts. There is little or no prescribed burning allowed in wilderness areas--which the Lone Fire engulfed, although natural fires are allowed to burn.

"Wilderness recognizes that burning will happen," says Pete Wynell, a wilderness manager at Tonto National Forest. "It's a natural thing. The question is: Was this a natural burning or unnatural burning? Have we changed the base rules of the game with this fuel loading? And was it started by nature or not?"

And although environmentalists claim that the ESA does not forbid burning in spotted-owl habitats, the Fish and Wildlife Service is still slow to allow it. There were two owl nests within the perimeter of the Lone Fire, and both areas were totally destroyed by the fire.

"We couldn't prescribe burn there," says Linny Warren. "I've got burns that we tried to burn up there, right where this took place. As you know, around those parking areas, if you don't prescribe burn, someone's going to light a fire that'll get away. That's exactly what happened."

While land managers and environmentalists and legislators quibble about environmental policy, the forest burns down.

"If you want a metaphor," says Stephen Pyne, "that's it."
"Mother Nature didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention to the EPA, did it?" says Ron Moody.

Between 1930 and 1980, the number of wildland fires in Arizona and New Mexico doubled.

Between 1989 and 1995, the number of acres burned each year in Arizona more than doubled, according to statistics provided by the Southwest Area Coordination Center, which pools the fire data and firefighting resources of the state and federal land management agencies in Arizona and New Mexico. Except for the wet years of 1991 and 1992, the charred acreage rose steadily from 104,797 acres in 1989 to 243,536 acres last year. Already in 1996, as of May 26, more than 87,700 Arizona acres had already burned. During most years, the fire season would barely be getting started by that date.

The cost is hard to track; because of the various agency accounting methods--and a bunker mentality that refuses to give up the information--there seems to be no way of tabulating the overall price tag of fire suppression. One Forest Service publication cites a 1990 figure of $800 million. And the fires have gotten bigger since then.

In Arizona, the first of the big blazes was the 1990 Dude Creek Fire just below the Mogollon Rim, east of Payson, which burned 24,000 acres, destroyed 67 summer homes and killed six firefighters.

A complex of simultaneous 1994 fires burned more than 36,000 acres near Kingman, including 5,000 acres of old-growth Joshua trees.

"Now, those trees withstood the vagaries of nature for 200 years," says Jeff Whitney, "and we lost them in an afternoon. Things have changed: You've got red brome grass, you've got cheat grass, and you've got careless people."

Last year's biggest Arizona fires burned 23,000 acres in north Scottsdale, another 22,000 in Tonto National Forest, 17,000 in Mohave County and 10,000 in Graham County.

It's the fires to come that may be most dangerous, especially if they burn like the Lone Fire.

"We're just fighting fires in the California conditions," says Linny Warren, "which are just extreme. We're going to have fires like the Dude Fire that took out homes, because people built homes in that country. They can't fire-safe them, and we can't stop the fires. If they get a good start, they're gonna roll."

And they will roll over whatever is in the way.
Fire experts worry about the wildland/urban interface, that point where houses and forest or desert come together. Firefighting always involves juggling resources, and when it comes to a choice of attacking a fire and defending houses, the firefighters choose the houses, as happened in the Rio Fire.

"We dodged a bullet [at the Rio Fire]," says Jeff Whitney, who was incident commander on that fire. "It could have come into Rio Verde, it could have come into Fountain Hills. It came into north Scottsdale, but with tile roofs and stucco [and mandated sprinkler systems], those people built exactly the type of house you need to withstand a fire."

But the houses feathered into the trees of Prescott and Payson and other forest communities frighten Whitney.

"Wood houses with shake roofs, trees right up to the windows, brush right up to the decks on these steep slopes! I mean, geez . . . !"

These are the kinds of houses that Stephen Pyne describes as being built of forest materials, and consequently they burn like forests.

"You could take that Lone Fire and overlay it on the Prescott basin and we would probably be just as challenged or more so to slow or stop that fire," Whitney says. "And what you've got is thousands and thousands of people in harm's way. That whole Prescott basin area is just rife with forest homes, and the roads are typically single-lane. You get somebody come out of there and panic and run into a tree, block the exit, and you've got a lot of people at risk."

And those more rural areas do not have the considerable equipment and manpower of Phoenix Fire Department and Rural/Metro to throw between the flames and the houses.

"If you look at Payson, if you look at Show Low, Snowflake, Pinetop, any one of those communities is sitting on the edge and very close to the brink of disaster," Whitney continues, tension building in his voice. "The Ventura fire two years ago, the Malibu fire, the Oakland fire. They're all indications that, guys, we've moved out into the wild setting because it is so aesthetically attractive. And what we've done is we've put ourselves at risk."

If the monsoon comes this summer, the fires could come all at once.
"All that needs to happen this season is one of those dry lightning storms that are common under these kinds of conditions, and all hell breaks loose," adds NAU professor Wally Covington. "We could have 30 or 40 fires going simultaneously, and then all of the resources are going to have to be directed to protect the cities. The endangered-species habitat that we have, they're just going to have to let it go."

Up in the Flagstaff area, forest rangers have written so many citations to campers and tourists violating the forest closures that they've run out of ticket books.

And the people who live in the forests are afraid to leave their homes in case the fires come. They're praying for an early monsoon, but fearful of the lightning it may bring.

"We're under siege," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club, who lives on the edge of the national forest just outside Flagstaff. "I feel like we're in jail. We can't go anywhere; the woods are closed. I have to run a gauntlet [of rangers] just to get up my road.

"And there is a lot of fear for everyone who lives near the woods.

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