For much of the month of June, Kendrick Mountain was a beehive of activity as hundreds of firefighters streamed in from across the country to dig fire lines, fly aerial ignition missions, light backburns and protect private property around the Boundary Fire.

At its height, nearly 500 people were working on the managed fire within a planned containment area that covered 28 square miles. Most forest roads and trails around the mountain were closed more than a month, smoke forced the closure of a portion of U.S. Highway 180,  and it worsened air quality for days in surrounding areas.

The tally for the fire is now at $9.4 million, or $522 an acre.

Forest Service officials acknowledge that it’s a hefty price tag, and recognize that the blaze came at a time of year when northern Arizona generally sees its driest, most wildfire-prone conditions. But they staunchly defend their strategy on the fire, saying it was necessary to ensure firefighter safety and made the most of an opportunity to clear out forest fuels and reduce the risk of severe fire in the future.

“We have set up Kendrick (Mountain) to be in a much more resilient state, much more resistant to high severity fire. It will be in good shape for a number of years in the future,” said Jackie Banks, the public information officer with the Kaibab National Forest.

Even so, it’s a challenge to defend a multimillion-dollar bill like the Boundary Fire’s, Banks said.

“We’re struggling with how do we let the public know that this cost was worth it to them?" she said.

Lightning strike

The Boundary Fire started June 1 with a lightning strike in the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness on steep slopes where dead and downed trees lay scattered after being burned in the Pumpkin Fire 17 years ago.

Immediate suppression of the fire, though it would have made the incident much less costly, wasn’t an option in that area because it was too risky to put firefighters there, said Art Gonzales, the fire staff officer on the Kaibab National Forest who is currently serving as an acting district ranger.

No air tankers to drop retardant were called in, and the fire grew in the first days to about 300 acres before flaring up a week later amid Red Flag conditions to several thousand acres, forcing the highway closure and the transition from a Type III to a Type II emergency management team. 

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Planning out the fire

Team leaders attend a briefing before taking their crews out for the night shift on the Boundary Fire in this file photo. The fire management team's strategy protected firefighters and allowed fire to burn through areas where heavy fuels had built up and were posing a fire risk. 

In the end, fire managers decided to establish containment lines along a series of roads that ring the mountain, which meant the fire would eventually burn a much bigger area -- about 18,000 acres. But the management team decided that was the smallest area possible to both suppress the fire and ensure the safety of firefighters, said Robert Sanchez, who was the agency administrator for the Boundary Fire and is the deputy forest supervisor on the Coconino National Forest.

While the fire was burning during a streak of near-record heat and many days of Red Flag Warnings, Gonzales said those conditions were actually needed to get the fire to burn low and slow through the higher elevation mixed conifer forest that blankets Kendrick Mountain. That way, the flames burned up fuels on the ground but didn’t climb into tree canopies.

Planned aerial and ground ignitions, while increasing the area burned by the fire, were needed to slow down the fire’s intensity and reinforce containment, Gonzales and other fire managers said.

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Boundary Fire staffing

In this file photo, firefighters are surrounded by low-intensity fire as they work on a back-burn operation near the Boundary Fire's containment lines at the base of Kendrick Mountain. The fire burned nearly 18,000 acre and cost $9.4 million, but Forest Service officials say their strategy was necessary for firefighter safety and also benefited the ecosystem. 

As far as costs, they were always part of the Boundary Fire management discussion, Gonzales said. The fire management team constantly expanded and contracted the number of personnel assigned to the fire to ensure money and resources weren’t wasted but assets like private land were protected, he said. A regional fire coordination center also plays a key role in tracking and assigning resources to each fire depending on the status of other incidents around the country.

WORTH IT?

The reality of the Forest Service’s budget is the more money that is spent on firefighting, the less that’s available for non-fire programs, including restoration projects aimed at reducing wildfire threats.

For the Boundary Fire, though, Forest Service officials said firefighting dollars accomplished suppression as well as restoration goals, a fact that was applauded by organizations focused on forest restoration.

The fire burned through much of the dead and downed fuel on Kendrick Mountain, reducing future risk of high severity fire and helping spur regeneration while also leaving the overstory in tact, Gonzales said. It was also notable that just 1 percent of the burn area saw more damaging high severity fire, while minimal resources have been needed to help the area recover, he said.

Ecologically, forests in northern Arizona need  periodic fire to thrive, and in reintroducing fire to the Kendrick Mountain area since the Pumpkin Fire of 2000, the Boundary Fire aligned with what is an extremely high priority for the broader forest restoration community, said Todd Schulke, who oversees forest restoration and protection at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“I think the Forest Service deserves a pat on the back. This is how the future ought to look,” Schulke said.

At least in the Flagstaff area, the choice between accomplishing restoration or spending on fire suppression doesn’t have to be an either-or, Schulke said.

“I think it’s a false dichotomy in the sense that (the Forest Service) is doing both and doing pretty well at it,” he said.

From a cost perspective, wildfire is a more efficient way of accomplishing restoration goals than mechanical thinning and prescribed burning, said Diane Vosick, with the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. The $522 an acre it took to manage and direct the Boundary Fire across 18,000 acres is still significantly cheaper than the $700 to $1,000 per acre it costs to mechanically thin trees in high-risk wildland urban interfaces, Vosick said.

“In an example like the Boundary Fire, I would say people were happy to see management with fire,” Vosick said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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