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Film Explores Forest Restoration, Solutions To 'Mega Fire'

The Nature Conservancy

Wildfires have been growing bigger and more catastrophic in recent decades. In Arizona, the record for the largest wildfire has been broken twice in the past 16-years with the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow Fires. A film screening tonight in Flagstaff explores the wide-ranging impacts and potential solutions to these mega fires. Kristin Atwell produced and wrote the film, “Fire and Water: Restoring Arizona’s Forests.” She spoke with KNAU’s Aaron Granillo.

"Fire and Water: Restoring Arizona's Forests" screens Thursday, May 17th at the Museum of Northern Arizona. A panel discussion will follow. 6:30-8:00pm.

Aaron Granillo: So, Kristin, the film opens by discussing just the sheer magnitude of what’s known as “mega fire.” Can you describe what a “mega fire” is, and why has it become so much more common?

Kristin Atwell: Mega fires are wildfires that consume large tracts of land. And, they burn so hot and so intensely that they destroy the entire landscape. In the middle part of the 20th century, a fire that would start naturally in the forest might burn 50, 60 acres at a time. Now, we’re seeing fires that burn 500, 600 thousand acres at a time. It’s really disturbing because when you destroy that habitat at that level it impacts everything in the forest, around the forest, and downstream of those watersheds.

And, the film features some solutions to reducing the risk of mega fire. You featured the White Mountain Apache Tribe and its efforts to restore forest health. What actions have they been taking and how have they helped?

So, the White Mountain Apache Tribe has been actively managing their lands for about the last 50 or 60 years. And, when the Wallow Fire came through the White Mountain lands, it behaved differently than it did in the forest that had not been managed in that there was still a lot of fuel on the landscape. Because the White Mountain tribe had been thinning small diameter trees, the fire jumped down from being a high intensity fire that ran through the crown of the trees to a low intensity surface fire, which is actually really healthy and rejuvenative for the forest itself. So that was a wonderful model for us to follow in this film to show that active management does work and it can help contain these fires that at this moment in Arizona history are out of control.  

Kristin, I wonder what got you into filmmaking, and what inspired this latest project?

I am an Arizona native and I love the landscape. I love to hike and backpack and run rivers. So, I’ve always looked for stories that focus on the synthesis of people and place. How places influence us and how we in turn are shaped by those places that we love.

Now, where do you see this film fitting into the larger discussion of land stewardship and protecting forests?

So, right now at this moment in history in Arizona there are a lot of different entities, people, organizations, who have a vested interest in seeing our forests return to healthy, resilient landscapes. And, one of the things that was so neat about this film is we got to document this particular moment in history where organizations that used to be adversaries have had to come together to find a solution; non-profits, federal agencies that are working to be good stewards of the land and turn things around for Arizona. And, Flagstaff itself has been an incredibly forward-thinking and active community. And, being a mountain town I think a lot of people understand how much of their life and their livelihood depends on having healthy forest lands around them.


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