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Arizona

Fighting Wildfires Before They Start

“The White Mountain stewardship crews had been working all summer long near our home, which was probably what saved Alpine.”

- Ron Eichelberger
Alpine, Arizona

Ask a conservationist about the benefits of forest stewardship and you’ll get an earful on native species integrity and increased biodiversity. Ask Ron Eichelberger of Alpine, Arizona, though, and the answer is a little more personal. “It saved this town. Not just our house, this whole town.”

Like much of eastern Arizona, Alpine found itself in the path of the Wallow Fire the summer of 2011. Originating in the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area in late May, the Wallow Fire raged for nearly six weeks across 538,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

If not for one particular forest stewardship program, it might have been much, much worse. The White Mountain Stewardship Project was launched in 2005 by the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, local contractors and businesses, local and state governments, local communities and conservation organizations, to promote forest health and protect communities from destructive wildfire throughout the vast ponderosa pine forests of Arizona’s White Mountains.

The White Mountain project is serving as a model for the much larger Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which will thin over 300,000 acres of pine forest by the end of 2015.

The program consists of tree thinning that largely mimics historical forest conditions to reduce wildfire fuel.The program has treated more than 50,000 acres, including forests around Alpine and neighboring communities like Greer and Eagar. Those towns were largely spared from the Wallow Fire, which, according to Ron, spread so quickly residents were given just two hours to evacuate. “I had time to load up my four mules, throw some papers together and that was it.”

When he and his wife, Sharon, returned 18 days later, they were stunned to find not just their house, but the entire town intact. “We were darn lucky,” Ron says. “The White Mountain stewardship crews had been working all summer long near our home, which was probably what saved Alpine.”

Controlled burning is an important process that the Forest Service is planning as a follow-up action to mechanical treatments. The two-pronged strategy will allow for naturally ignited, low-intensity fires that improve forest health while reducing the likelihood and intensity of wildfires, which threaten local communities and rural economies.

As a former state and regional volunteer chairman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and founding member of the Arizona Elk Society, Ron understands the importance of fire to both the forest and the wildlife it supports.

“This land needs to be treated with fire,” he says. “The range just south of here has had a real aggressive fire program over the last 10 years. I’ve seen the results of that and the way the deer have come back. The positive effects of prescribed fire are obvious.”

The homes and businesses of Alpine and neighboring communities stand testament to that fact.

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