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Coconino National Forest official explains criteria used to determine forest closures

Melissa Sevigny

Fire restrictions have lifted on the Coconino National Forest, and several areas that were closed due to extreme wildfire risk are now open to the public again. The lessening fire risk is due to the arrival of the monsoon season, on the heels of several disastrous wildfires that destroyed homes and displaced families. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Coconino National Forest fire staff officer James Pettit about the decision-making process used to determine if the forest should be shut down.

One of the things that goes into this complicated decision-making process are fire models, and those fire models are fed by information you’re gathering from the forest about how dry the fuels are, and how fire would behave on the landscape. Is that right?

That’s correct…. What we measure in our day-to-day indices, it’s ten different pieces of environmental factors… All of that stuff gets aggregated into some fire models that get run… and that gives us an adjective fire rating. The adjective fire rating comes in low, moderate, high, very high, and extreme. I’m sure we’ve all driven past the Smokey signs out there, and it’s got Smokey’s arm that waves at one of those, that’s where we get that… That’s one of the things that feed into what we call “the criteria.”

So the next step is, these fire models are just one part of the criteria you use to figure out if it’s time to close the forest, and there’s also these social and political questions that you ask.

Correct… One of the things we look at is values at risk…. Another factor we look at is adequate resources. Do we have enough adequate resources to suppress fires that we might get? And a lot of things come into play with that: are there a lot of other fires going on in the region that draw all those resources, and we get a fire, it’s hard to get some?... So we have to kind of balance all of that… and come up with the best decision we can, anchoring to that science to guide some of that decision making… It takes a lot of coordination with all of our other partners and cooperators. We meet every Monday to talk about these things…. A full forest closure is something we don’t take likely. It’s literally talking about locking the public out of public lands. That’s something we really have to deliberate on, and we have to be in the most dire circumstances possible for that.

What kinds of questions are you asking, or discussions you’re having, about updating this criteria as we head for a drier future and long term drought?

Most of those conversations go on in the wintertime when we can evaluate our criteria and look at it, see if we need to make any changes, see if it’s still making good sense, that kind of thing. But we’re in mid-fire season, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that, it’s hard to make those wholesale changes to anything like that, when we’re kind of in the heat of battle. But we’ll look at it again this winter.

Can you talk about trends you’ve noticed, maybe just in the five years you’ve worked on the Coconino, have you seen that we’re hitting those criteria for forest closures more often?

We are. Last year was a year that we closed…. One of the firefighting tools that we’ve used, since I’ve been doing this, for a long time, we get fires in the pine type and they take off running at you, and eventually they would hit the pinyon juniper country. What we saw last year was that it was carrying through that pinyon juniper country where it normally doesn’t…. That was pretty eye-opening,… You know as you drive around through the pinyon juniper—last year we saw die-off in a lot of that stuff… That’s likely some of the issues that come with drought and climate change.

James Pettit, thank you so much for your hard work this fire season, I really appreciate your time today.

Thanks for having me.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.