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Experts say decades of managing tribal forest helped stop Wallow Fire at reservation

Published: Monday, December 12, 2011

Updated: Thursday, January 12, 2012 17:01

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Butch Gregg, a forester technician with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, uses a drip torch filled with a mixture of gasoline and kerosene to light wood piles in a season-ending forest-treatment near the tribal community of McNary.

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Orlando Carroll, left, timber sales forester, and Jonathan Brooks, tribal forest manager, with the White Mountain Apache Tribe talk about the impact to tribal land from the 2011 Wallow Fire while walking near the boundary to tribal land and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Jim Pitts, a forest health and growth expert with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, explains growth patterns in a tree that was cut in a forest-thinnning treatment.

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Jim Zornes, deputy forest supervisor with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, points to a burn progression map of the Wallow Fire.

But according to Brooks, more than 90 percent of the fire that burned through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation was part of a backfire operation to protect lands farther west, including Mount Baldy, Arizona's second-highest mountain, and Sunrise Park Resort.

The Wallow Fire Fuels Treatment Effectiveness Report concludes that decades of aggressive forest management contributed directly to a decrease in burn intensity on tribal lands, stopping the westward growth of the Wallow Fire.

The report, expected to be released in late 2011 or early 2012 on agency websites, was conducted by a team of federal agencies and fire ecology experts from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Interagency Fire Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and included findings from the 2011 Wallow Fire Burned Area Emergency Stabilization Plan.

The approaching wildfire was a crown fire, in which flames reach the tops of trees and spread rapidly at intense temperatures. But when it reached tribal lands, the report said, it dropped to the ground, enabling fire crews to secure the edge of the fire by setting backfires.

The strategies "resulted in a limited number of acres classified as high and moderate soil burn severity," where trees die and soil is degraded by high temperatures, the report said. This tree death rate reached only 10 percent on tribal lands, including forests on the neighboring San Carlos Apache Reservation.

In the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, intense burning affected 58 percent of the forest, where fire temperatures resulted in tree death rates greater than 50 percent, according to a September U.S. Forest Service report detailing forest vegetation after the Wallow Fire.

The fuels treatment report takes this assessment further, concluding that fuel treatments on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation allowed forest managers to safely set backfires, keeping the impact to tribal land to a minimum and "significantly reduced costs for suppression and post-fire rehabilitation."

The report credited the many treatments conducted on the reservation through the years with stopping the Wallow Fire's spread.

"It's not about one fire; it's about a mosaic of fires on a landscape that provided that positive result," said Mary Taber, a Bureau of Indian Affairs fire ecologist at the National Interagency Fire Center who helped compile data for the report. "The core themes of the report [are] that this mosaic of fire treatments over decades led to the successful result of being able to stop the fire there in a safe manner."

Apache-Sitgreaves

Under the 2004 White Mountain Stewardship Contract, awarded by the U.S. Forest Service to treat up to 15,000 acres per year over 10 years, a private firm has thinned the forest around communities to reduce the fire danger.

Those treatments worked around communities like Alpine, Nutrioso, Springerville and Greer, according to Jim Zornes, deputy forest supervisor with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

"We still had losses in areas that had been treated, but those losses weren't nearly as great and it's more of an individual or small group loss of trees," Zornes said. "Those treatments do make a difference."

With more than 500,000 acres burned by the Wallow Fire on land adjacent to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, Zornes and several Forest Service personnel interviewed by Cronkite News Service said the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests needs to start treating more acres to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

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