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Does a 'new normal' demand a new policy for preventing wildfires on the Peaks?

Lockett Pipeline
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Fire personnel continued to patrol Locket Meadow on Thu, June 23, 2022, a week-and-a-half after the Pipeline Fire began near Schultz Pass. It eventually grew to 26,500 acres on the San Francisco Peaks, scorching many sensitive areas on Doyle and Fremont peaks as well as several watersheds.

The Flagstaff area this year has endured two large and devastating wildfires in short succession: April’s Tunnel Fire and then the Pipeline Fire that began almost three weeks ago. Though the causes of both are still under investigation, it’s widely assumed they were started by humans. As the Pipeline Fire still smoldered in some areas, KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius toured Locket Meadow in the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks. He spoke to Flagstaff District Ranger Matt McGrath about the areas that burned and what changes might be needed to reduce human-caused wildfires in one of the most sensitive and beloved areas in the region.

Lockett Pipeline 2
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
The Pipeline Fire burned some of the ridges and hillsides near the Inner Basin Trail, which starts in Lockett Meadow, as seen on Thu, June 23, 2022. But it largely spared much of the area popular with hikers and halted in some of the aspen groves adjacent to the trailhead.

Ryan Heinsius: We’re right on the edge of where the fire progressed to. Maybe you can describe that fire perimeter that we’re looking at.

Matt McGrath: Sure, so the Pipeline Fire started along the gas pipeline down sort of near Schultz Pass, and the wind on Sunday and Monday blew it to the northeast. It then worked its way up Weatherford Canyon. We’re at kind of the top of Weatherford Canyon, Weatherford comes up at Doyle Saddle, between Doyle and Fremont Peak. And that’s where we can see the fire just sort of creeped over here just a little bit into the Inner Basin. And the reason for that is, one, the wind died down a little bit and which enabled us to send five or six hotshot crews in from Fremont Peak, either up from the bottom or some working down from the top, and digging hand line adjacent to the fire with some support from helicopters. Also, the fire creeped up a little bit over the ridge above the campground here in Lockett Meadow, but then it went into an aspen patch, which is generally in this area of the world a natural fire break. And then also came down towards Lockett Meadow and once you get to the meadow there’s a road and not that much flammable material here in the meadow.

RH: So what I’ve been hearing from you and other managers and officials is that this fire was bad, this was a catastrophic fire for a lot of areas but it could have been a lot worse. Maybe you can tell me what some lessons learned might be from this fire.

MM: This fire started in an area that had been treated, Chimney Springs area. But what we’ll be looking at as we go forward is how some of those fuel treatments impacted this fire. We need to keep doing this restoration work in this area. We’ve done it in a lot of areas, we’ve seen on the Museum Fire in 2019 where the fire behavior, it didn’t stop when it got to areas that had been treated but the fire behavior was moderated a little bit. So we need to keep doing that in areas around the Peaks, adjacent to the Kachina Peaks Wilderness as much as we can.

Lockett Pipeline 3
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
A hillside near the campsites at Lockett Meadow was heavily burned by the Pipeline Fire, as see on Thu, June 23, 2022.

RH: So there’s the ecological component but what about the human component? This was allegedly started by a person. What might be some policy changes that could be coming down the pike? What can the forest do to prevent the human element of this?

MM: This fire started in an area that is permanently closed to campfires. It kind of shows you a little bit that there’s no silver bullet in preventing these fires. You know, people were out there, there are plenty of signs that say no campfires. You know, common sense you think would dictate that on a hot, dry day where we’ve been in persistent drought and the wind’s whipping, you don’t start a fire. But one thing I’ve learned in many years as a resource manager is that you can’t count on common sense. So I think what we’ll be looking at going forward is working with our partners, the city and the county and the community. How do we manage visitor use in this area differently? So folks are allowed to camp there but if we just can’t count on people to not have a fire do we need to close that area to camping? Maybe. I think that’s a conversation that we’ll be having this winter.

RH: In our chats in recent months you’ve described a new normal of fire behavior, of resource management, of how climate change is impacting national forests and public lands. Does this new normal necessitate new policy?

MM: I think it does. The fact that the Tunnel Fire happened in mid-April. That fire shouldn’t happen in mid-April. It’s always windy here every spring. We know March, April, May that’s just something we deal with. But that fire should not happen that time of year. So, as we’re figuring out what this new normal is as things have changed every year and fires are more and more resistant to control, what variables can we change? And that variable is how do we reduce human ignitions. How do we provide the opportunity for locals, for people visiting to still have an overnight experience? Maybe it just can’t be within three or four miles of the Peaks. These windy spring months coupled with drought, whatever’s going on with the climate—we need to do something differently and I think we’re going to start that conversation now and really plan on doing something differently in the near future.

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.