Fire crews pivot from typical springtime suppression to prescription amid wetter-than-normal conditions
Residents of Flagstaff and other northern Arizona communities have no doubt noticed all the smoke in the air in recent weeks. It’s come from a combination of several prescribed burns and lightning-caused wildfires that forest officials have opted to manage for ecological benefit following a very snowy winter and amid an unusually wet spring. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with U.S. Forest Service Handcrew Captain Aaron Graeser, who served as the operations section chief for the Volunteer Fire west of Flagstaff.
Ryan Heinsius: Tell me about the importance of taking advantage of lightning strikes that happen under these very specific conditions and what fire managers want to accomplish with these types of situations.
Aaron Graeser: Anyone in our community knows coming out of the winter we just had and the conditions that we have it is not like last year. It is not like the Tunnel Fire. It is not like the Pipeline Fire. We don’t have those conditions. So, we can take a breath, we can get out of full just protecting people’s stuff, protecting people’s homes and evacuation, and look at using fire on the landscape in its natural role on the landscape, which is naturally reoccurring fire about every 10 to 15 years in this fuel model. So, if you exclude it for 80 years and it’s on a 10-year cycle, you’re kind of way out of whack. So, for ecological reasons and for protection reasons, this was a good opportunity for us.
RH: I can hear the relief in your voice talking about last year to this year. You were heading up the initial response to Pipeline and I remember we chatted. Tell me about the contrast between those two years.
AG: It’s definitely a relief. It’s a relief for our community. It’s definitely a relief for this force. We’re sworn to protect this community and do our job and ready to do it at all times. Last year was an interesting year for this community. Last year was an interesting year for Flagstaff and the surrounding areas. Definitely a challenging one. This year could be as challenging at certain times. It is not right now. And when we really look at planning, we look at a very dedicated and highly trained workforce, we can implement that workforce. I’ve always equated what we do as a Swiss Army knife. Sometimes you’ve got to pull out the corkscrew, sometimes you have to pull out the scissors, sometimes you’ve got to pull out the knife. Having a workforce as well-trained and developed as ours, we can do that. We can pull out a different tool for a different job and know that there’s going to be a high level of performance on those. And the conditions that we have this year allow us to maybe pull out a different tool than we did last year. Any tool that we pull out, we are here to serve the community and we’re here to do the best job that we can to protect the valuable resources out there—ecologically, private property, whatever it is.
RH: What do you hope this area looks like after all is said and done, after all this burns?
AG: Sure, all right, great question, great question. So, immediately I think what we’re going to see is we’re going to see all the ground fuels that are going to turn black because we’ve burned them. I think within the next couple months we’re probably going to start to see some grass growth, that’s going to start to come back. Hopefully within the next four to five years after this we can get back in with fire. We really would like to put multiple treatments on any one area with fire. That’s the most resilient we can make the landscape. It’s tough to do that though, so we do that where we can.
RH: I know a lot of considerations go into managed fire, prescribed fire. Last year, there was the obvious example of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire that got way out of control. Has anything changed in the interim for you, for fire managers, in making these decisions?
AG: Sure. Yeah, I think a lot has, Ryan. I think that we’ve always taken a measured approach to prescribed fire. There’s been some direction from the chief of the Forest Service on some very specific things that they want to see in the planning cycle. So, how we write things like a burn plan, which is a needed document before we ignite a prescribed fire. So, there have been some changes and I think there’s going to be more to come. They are all good things. We need to learn from past events. Regardless of blame, we need to learn from past events. And a true learning organization takes a look at what we’re doing, we adjust it, and we go forth and do good work for the public. That’s what we’re trying to do.