The Slide Fire: 1 Year Later - Ecological Recovery Of The Burn Area

May 22, 2015

Every day this week, we've been hearing from some of the people closest to last year's Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon. We've checked in with investigators, evacuees, emergency responders and firefighters. And today, we hear from two fire scientists about the ecological recovery of the burn area. We start with Rory Steinke, Watershed Manager for the Coconino National Forest and leader of the Burn Area Emergency Response Team.

Map of the Slide Fire burn area.
Credit Arizona Highways

Rory Steinke, Watershed Manager and BAER Team Leader for the Coconino National Forest

We're looking at a map that shows right down the middle of the 21,ooo acre Slide Fire and the West Fork of Oak Creek. The contour shows that it's very steep, so that's kind of the rim, and as you can see much of the "red" or "high severity" occurred in the steeper slopes.

So, what the BAER Team did for this fire is after 1 year of recovery, one year after the fire, we sent five teams in - actually, six teams in — to look at how the watershed is recovering. Do we need to do additional seeding and mulching? Do we need to consider closing the forest rec sites during the monsoon season? So, we sent the teams out and we evaluated the high, moderate and low severity burn areas, and I'm collecting and assembling that data right now.

In a nutshell, I would say that the "low" burn severity areas are much healthier and will improve because they actually have the effect of sort of a managed fire reducing some of those fuels. The "moderate" severity areas are recovering very rapidly. And the "high" severity are recovering faster than I thought it would.

To say that the entire forest is healthier...I couldn't say that because the "high" burn severity are not really part of the natural cycle. Above the West Fork of Oak Creek we have the flatter ponderosa pine, and we have our watersheds mapped on here.

Typically what happens is...ash happens, OK? After these fires, and after the first major storm that we had, that flush cleans the clocks. It washes the ash away first, and then it washes the loose soil away. And so the first storm washed most of the loose ash and soil away, and it resulted in sludge in Oak Creek - fortunately, no high floods. We were kind of concerned about fish kill because of the ash, because ash is not a good thing for the gill structure of the fish. But, consequently the second and third storms cleared it out even more, and by the last storms we had - even this spring - most of the ash and sediment seems to be clear from the system now. So, there are some short term consequences to the fisheries, but this is part of the natural ecosystem.

Andrea Thode, Fire Ecologist and Associate Professor at NAU's School of Forestry

I think the Slide Fire was particularly impressive because managers in this area have known that that fire was coming for a long time, and they've really been planning for it for probably over a decade. The planning that was done and the people that were on the ground, there were a lot of local resources, people who were initially on the fire who knew the land, knew the ecological benefit of fire, and really were able to think about that when they came up with a plan for how to deal with this fire.

So, the Southwest Fire Science Consortium started our Incidents of the Year Awards. They are to recognize the positive ecological benefit that we're getting from wildland fires. Not just prescribed fire, but wildland fires. And the Slide Fire was our first awardee for the Human Ignited Suppression Objective Fire.

The whole goal of these awards is to change public and management perspective on wildfire to help continue to change this culture within the firefighting organizations that, even though it's a suppression fire, we can do a lot of ecological good. It's a culture that has been changing, and we've seen some beautiful fire put on the ground by some of these fire practitioners. And also for the public to understand that wildfire doesn't have to be all bad. There's absolutely a scary component to it especially when it's near houses and everything else, and we do have places on the landscape where we can't control wildfire because we haven't done the kinds of pre-work that we need to do on the ground to be able to work with those fires. But there is a good piece to all wildfires, really.