Forest Thinning Contractor Won’t Face Blame For Museum Fire

Sep 18, 2019

A preliminary report by investigators on the Museum Fire shows no negligence by the contractor conducting forest thinning operations. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports, the company and employee on the job followed all requirements to prevent wildfire when it began in July.

At the origin site of the Museum Fire in the Dry Lake Hills ponderosa pines are charred and the ground is coated in a thick layer of ash. It's here that investigators say an excavator likely struck a rock that caused a spark during thinning operations on Sat, July 20.
Credit Ryan Heinsius / KNAU

Officials say the contractor, Oregon-based Smith Forestry, was working on the steep, rocky slopes as part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project when an excavator likely struck a rock creating a spark. As required, the employee remained at the site for one hour after the work was done and had properly functioning equipment and a fire extinguisher. Investigators say the spark smoldered for at least 14 hours before growing into a wildfire.

The blackened steep, rocky slopes near the Museum Fire's origin site. Mt. Elden is in the background.
Credit Ryan Heinsius / KNAU

"This was not negligence in any way, shape or form on their part, and we certainly are not looking to assign blame to that individual or that company. In fact, we’re doing the opposite, we’re more than anxious for them to get back and reengage and we’re going to welcome them back," says Paul Summerfelt, the wildland fire management officer with the City of Flagstaff.

At the Museum Fire's origin site with the City of Flagstaff in the background below.
Credit Ryan Heinsius / KNAU

Summerfelt and other forest officials say no major changes will be made to contractor protocol, and describe the 1,961-acre Museum Fire as an “unfortunate accident.”

Aspen trees near the Museum Fire's origin site in the Dry Lake Hills have a vaguely pink-ish color from the red fire retardant dropped to slow the fire's growth.
Credit Ryan Heinsius / KNAU

The wildfire forced the evacuations of neighborhoods and caused flooding danger in some parts of the city. Firefighting efforts so far have totaled $9 million.