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Coconino NF proposal aims to counter changing forest conditions and wildfire behavior

The Pipeline Fire burns on the San Francisco Peaks and in Schultz Pass on Mon, June 13, 2022. The wind-driven blaze made a major run to the northeast the day it was reported and has triggered nearly 2,200 evacuations.
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
The Pipeline Fire burns on the San Francisco Peaks and in Schultz Pass on Mon, June 13, 2022. The wind-driven blaze made a major run to the northeast the day it was reported and has triggered nearly 2,200 evacuations.

In the wake of two devastating wildfires on the San Francisco Peaks in 2022, forest managers are proposing a host of new restrictions designed to reduce human-caused ignitions. They would ban camping and fires in more areas near Flagstaff and prohibit vehicle access on parts of the Coconino National Forest surrounding the peaks under heightened fire restrictions. KNAUs’ Ryan Heinsius spoke with Flagstaff District Deputy Ranger Nick Mustoe about the proposal.

For details and public comment options on the plan see the Coconino’s website.

Ryan Heinsius: How did forest officials settle on this specific combination of measures?

Nick Mustoe: You know, Ryan, what we did was really take a look at, what are all the possible actions we could take to try to protect the community. What is everything out that maybe we haven’t considered in the past and that maybe we should consider now given changing conditions, given really and truly how devastating of a fire year we had last year. Are we taking the appropriate amount of steps while still realizing the importance of public access to public lands and how do we balance those two things to hopefully come up with a middle ground that serves our community and still allows people to get out in the forest and have a good time appropriately and responsibly.

RH: Do you feel that if these restrictions had been in effect one year ago would the Pipeline Fire, for instance, that started in the area in question here, off Schultz Pass. Could this potentially have prevented a Pipeline Fire from coming up?

NM: You know, that’s definitely something we think about. I want to be clear with the community that this is a risk-reduction method of trying to stop us from having the largest human-caused fires on the worst days. The ability to stop every human-caused fire or the ability to stop every wildfire is going to continue to be challenging. Looking back at our history of large fires on the district there are some fires that fall into this stage two period that are human-caused in origin, one of which being the Pipeline Fire. So, this is another tool that we can give our enforcement capabilities to try to address those starts when they do happen. Looking at it, it does seem like maybe this proposal would have taken one large fire off the map, and the impacts that that would have not only to the Forest Service and millions of dollars fewer spent suppressing the fire, but also to the county and the city in those post-fire flooding impacts.

RH: Beyond the significant environmental impacts of large wildfires on the peaks, the livability of much of Flagstaff is really at risk. Are these proposed restrictions enough to truly protect the city during the upcoming fire season and beyond?

NM: I think it has to be an all-of-the-above approach and that is what the district is looking to do. What is it that we have within our ability to impact and how do we point that towards reducing the wildfire risk to the City of Flagstaff. So that comes down to, it has to be a combination of mechanical treatments and thinnings. We’re prioritizing those on the western side of the peaks that has not burned yet. Give ourselves every ability to reduce the risk of fire there. And then the other piece of it has to be human management. It is a top-to-bottom approach of the district. How do we point our fire-prevention program at the right acres at the right time and how do we provide our enforcement folks with the right tools in order to be able to be effective?

RH: The threat of wildfires near and on the San Francisco Peaks is obviously nothing new. But why did it take the catastrophes of the Tunnel and Pipeline fires for officials to act on tightening these regulations on the forest?

NM: This district for a long time has been focused on this problem. So, this has not been something by any means that’s been ignored. But I think a rational person has to look at the situation and say, is there anything more that we can do? Let’s really go to the drawing board. Is there anything that might not have made sense in the past but makes sense today? Are we seeing changing conditions out there? And I’ll say, we are incredibly lucky on this district. I’ve got fire folks with 30 years, 20 years of experience. What they tell me is that what we’re seeing out there is what used to be true might not be true anymore in certain fuel types. So, some of the behavior that we’re seeing in the fire doesn’t line up with historically what made sense. And so, I think that’s a good indication that it’s time to take a look at this and really see, is there something more than can be done, and that’s why we developed the proposal that we did.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered 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 Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.