As wildfires rage across California and the death toll mounts, it’s an appropriate time to assess the fire risks facing the Flagstaff region, too.
Two decades ago, the answer to the question, “What is the single biggest threat facing Flagstaff,” the answer would likely have been, “Catastrophic wildfire.” The Radio Fire of 1977 had already denuded much of Mount Elden, and by the late 1990s, the city was still ringed by massive swaths of overgrown ponderosa pine forest that during dry years threatened to go up like Roman torches. The Pumpkin, Hochderffer and Horseshoe fires northwest of the city showed off the power of crown fires, and smaller ones closer to town such as the Woody Fire revealed just how precarious the margin of safety was.
But a coalition of NAU researchers, civic and business groups, and conservation advocates decided by the year 2000 that business as usual was too dangerous when it came to wildfire prevention. Working with the Forest Service, the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership drew up plans to treat 100,000 acres of unhealthy forests around Flagstaff 10,000 acres at a time.
Back then, that acreage sounded huge. But as plans were drawn up for each tract, it became apparent there just wasn’t enough elbow room for all the competing interests. Should endangered owls be protected at the expense of a viable business plan for bidders? Were all large trees worthy of protection, and if so how large?
By 2010, some of the planned projects had stalled for regulatory, financial and legal reasons. That summer saw the Schultz fire burn 15,000 acres on the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, followed by costly floods in Timberline, Fernwood and Doney Park.
The Schultz fire was a wakeup call on two fronts. The groups behind the Flagstaff partnership expanded their membership and set a goal of 2 million acres of treatments across parts of four national forests. Planning on a landscape level – the first EIS was completed in 2015 and identified 600,000 acres for thinning and controlled burns – smoothed out the conflicts in a collaborative process that saw not a single formal lawsuit filed. Today, the first phase of 4FRI is still encountering management and funding obstacles, but the groundwork is laid for accelerated progress in the next treatment zone.
The second front was launched inside the city of Flagstaff as leaders saw the devastation from flooding below the Schultz fire. By 2012, they were ready to take a $10 million bond issue to voters that would essentially put the city at the head of the line for thinning, primarily in two watershed areas of the national forest: Dry Lake Hills and Mormon Mountain. Crown fires there would trigger floods that would wipe out most of the Rio de Flag corridor all the way to NAU and Upper Lake Mary, respectively.
Flagstaff voters overwhelmingly endorsed the bond, the first such municipal/Forest Service partnership in the nation. City and national forest managers began mapping some 13,000 acres to be treated, then pushed through an EIS in record time. Tree marking and thinning began in the Dry Lake Hills this summer, and there will be some cable and helicopter logging in years to come.
Is Flagstaff out of the woods yet when it comes to catastrophic fire and flooding? Not entirely – the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project still has five years of work left and 4FRI is behind schedule on the western end of the Mogollon Rim. And much of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness above 9,500 feet on the western slopes has not had much fire at all in the past century.
But on balance, catastrophe of the kind being witnessed in California this week is not knocking at our door. Good planning and collaboration – and a little luck – have worked so far. Let’s keep the momentum going.