Getting Out in Front of Wildfire

Wildlife Get Caught in the Smoke

See how the Wallow Fire has changed life for wildlife and people in eastern Arizona.

As of mid-June, the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona has become Arizona’s largest ever wildfire; at almost 539,000 acres burned, it surpasses the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire that burned almost 468,000 acres.

Sue Sitko, the Conservancy’s Northern Arizona conservation manager, explains how the Wallow Fire may have been worse for the communities affected were it not for the seven years of the White Mountain Stewardship Project.
“Only with proactive management can we get ahead of the catastrophic wildfire curve.”

-Sue Sitko, Northern Arizona Conservation Manager

How can restoring a forest—using thinning and stewardship techniques—help prevent catastrophic fire?

Sue Sitko:

Thinning and removing small trees, flammable brush and debris from the forest will allow our forests to more readily accept fire without providing the fuel for the fire to climb into treetops and become catastrophic.

Fire in a “restored” forest generally mimics natural conditions, keeping to the forest floor, regenerating the understory, and benefitting the forest and the wildlife habitat it provides.

The problem we face is that while we are thinning our forests, we are not able to get ahead of the curve. Decades of fire suppression and other management activities can’t be resolved in a few years, and we don’t have the funds or the economic infrastructure in place to make use of the small trees that need to be removed from the forest.

One of the Conservancy’s strategies is to work closely with forest managers, local communities, conservation organizations and businesses to find economic models that reduce the cost of treatment in order to treat more of our forests at a faster pace.

The impacts of the Wallow and Horseshoe Two fires show us that time is of the essence.

How has the White Mountain Stewardship Project helped keep the Wallow Fire from being even worse?

Sue Sitko:

Firefighters noted that when the active, intense crown fire reached a previously thinned area around Alpine, it became more manageable. Firefighters were able to get into the line of fire and make efforts to protect the community.

A few structures were lost, but most Forest Service staff on the line indicated that the impacts could have been much worse.

The Wallow Fire is a “perfect storm” of many factors that made it largely uncontrollable. When a fire gets this hot and this intense, no matter what you do, conditions may not work in our favor.

What still needs to be done in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest?

Sue Sitko:

The most immediate needs are two-fold. We were on the right track with the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which can still make a difference in the remaining unburned areas of the forest, and we are on the right track with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which ramps up thinning to even greater levels across the landscape.

So, in this forest, we first have to keep up this approach and focus on areas that have not burned. Only with proactive management can we get ahead of the catastrophic wildfire curve, and start putting our limited taxpayer funds into forest management instead of spending billions on suppressing these fires.

Secondly, regarding the Wallow Fire itself, it covered a unique area of diverse scenic, recreational, biological and watershed values, unmatched across the Southwest. We need to assess the impacts from this fire.

Almost certainly there will be a mosaic of effects that range from moderate to severe, as well as places that may have avoided fire altogether. Our goal will be to restore as many of these values as we can.

What lessons have we learned from this fire and our forest stewardship projects?

Sue Sitko:

We’ve learned that our thinning treatments do help protect our communities under most conditions, and they promote healthy forests that can absorb normal fires and sustain our incredible diversity of plants and animals.

We’ve also learned that restoration has been a slow process and will not keep pace with wildfires unless we can ramp up our treatments.

What is the next step in expanding forest restoration?

Sue Sitko:

The White Mountain Stewardship Project was the nation’s first experiment in a ten-year program. Now, after laying this foundation of success, we’re planning to take forest stewardship to an even greater scale.

Through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, we’ll treat 30,000-50,000 acres per year over thirty years. The four forests include the Kaibab, Tonto, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves.

Time is of the essence.

We can’t afford another Wallow Fire, which not only drastically impacts wildlife habitat, but also impacts community economies, small businesses, our outdoor recreation pursuits and most importantly, people’s homes, lives and livelihoods.

We can see the solution, and it must be turned into reality now.


Stay Updated

Learn about the places you love and find out how you can help by signing up for Nature eNews.

I'm already on the list Read our privacy policy

Thank you for joining our online community!

We'll be in touch soon with more Nature Conservancy news, updates, and exciting stories.