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Two-thirds of Tunnel Fire burned at low severity, expected to quickly recover

Tunnel Fire Burn
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
More than two-thirds of the Tunnel Fire burned at low severity including this area near Lenox road northeast of Flagstaff. Less than 1% of the 19,000-acre fire but at a high severity.

As the Tunnel Fire nears full containment, teams of scientists are assessing its impact and have completed a map showing that more than two-thirds of fire burned at low severity.

According to the burned area emergency response team, only 11 acres, or less than 1 percent, of the 19,000-acre fire was severely burned. About 8 percent had moderate impacts on soils.

Dick Fleishman is an information officer for the team and says slightly wetter fuels contributed to keeping most of the fire less extreme.

"The low severity, those will come back rather rapidly because if there was canopy, we didn’t lose that, and the ground cover is pretty well intact, so we should get—not expect to get a whole lot of runoff on that," he says.

According to Fleishman, the areas that burned moderately could take several years to recover. Moderate and high severity burns can damage soils, causing long-term increased runoff, erosion and negative effects on productivity.

In addition, firefighters were able to keep many of the steepest slopes in the area from burning, which could also reduce post-fire flooding. The team is still assessing what, if any, rehabilitation efforts and treatments may be needed.

Despite the relatively low severity of the Tunnel Fire, it still had devastating effects as heavy winds drove it through neighborhoods eventually burning 30 homes.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.