For three days on the North Rim, artists were bombarded with a slew of fire-themed jargon managers and ecologists threw around like DAID ping pong balls at a wildfire. A host of National Park Service fire managers, Southwest Fire Science Consortium and Landscape Conservation Initiative coordinators helped set the record—and the lingo—straight.
A century ago, the forest composition of the Southwest looked much different. Fire was a natural part of the ecosystem and regularly rolled across the landscape burning up “litter”—downed logs, limbs and shed needles—consequently preventing massive, high-intensity wildfires.
European settlers of the area brought with them the idea fires should be put out—period. This practice of pure suppression subsequently caused an increase in fuel load, or burnable material on the forest floor. If the weather forecast includes hot and dry conditions, like during the pre-monsoonal season, one bolt of lightning or unabated campfire in an area with low fuel moisture could spell disaster. This is intensified during drought years.
This notion that “fire exclusion” is the answer turned out to be a serious problem overall. Ecologists are now seeing stands on the Colorado Plateau growing closer together, increasing the propensity for tall flames to reach the needled crowns. With the right weather conditions, this could incur a stand-replacement fire event, or when all the trees in an area burn to death.
Two types of fire, how to manage them
There are two types of fire: prescribed and wild. Wildfire can stem from either human or natural ignition sources.
Flagstaff is a city in the WUI, or Wildland Urban Interface, meaning it is surrounded by wilderness. Fire managers in this case have to consider smoke inhalation—which is why most prescribed burns last about three days—and fire’s proximity to structures. They also must keep in mind the tools at their disposal.
The Coconino National Forest around Flagstaff is managed by the Forest Service. This agency typically takes a “pile and burn” approach when performing prescribed burns. A burn plan is developed, and with eventual approval, teams can head out into the proposed burn site and assemble mechanically slashed heaps they will later ignite with drip torches. The Forest Service has a strict suppression policy for both types of wildfire.
The Kaibab Plateau, however, is partially managed by the Forest Service. The North Zone all the way to the Rim is managed by the NPS, and they operate in proposed wilderness. They are rarely approved to mechanically cut through the prospective burn area, nor do officials approve of mechanized thinning. Instead they mainly work with managing naturally caused wildfires by digging conclusive fire lines and burning with drip torches.
It is also important to examine how ponderosa pines are adapted to fire.
Before the artists journeyed from the start at Coconino Center for the Arts to the forested North Rim, they received a crash course in Forestry 101 from NAU professor Pete Fulé. In the small forest behind Sechrist Elementary, he used a small increment borer tool to hand drill a core sample from a ponderosa about 170 years old. He explained the tree’s thick bark shields its “blood flow” layer called the cambium, which transports nutrients, from extreme heat. If fire scorches roughly 70 percent of the needles, they still are able to photosynthesize enough nutrients to ensure survival.
But how different forest types burn is also a concern. Elevation and corresponding climate affects which trees grow. Ponderosa love the 6,500 to 8,000-foot range, and would naturally burn at low to medium intensity about every five years.
In the Kaibab, Robinson detailed how climate change is affecting fire ecology. The consensus is the global climate is trending to hot and dry. In addition to reintroducing fire back into the ecosystem, ecologists fear stand-replacement fires will become the norm.
Robinson explained the climate is getting hotter and drier, and if a stand-replacement fire destroys most pine and mixed conifer (blue spruce and white fir) forests, they may never replenish in the ecosystem.
“If we lose that overstory and we’re only getting hotter and drier, what we’re seeing in the southwest is we’re starting to see our pinyon-juniper woodlands actually start to move up in elevation,” he said. “That’s where we start to talk about ecosystem-type changes…and why we have concerns about having too much of one type of fire.”
These people dedicate their lives to constantly learning about forest ecology and implementing their growing knowledge for the betterment of resource management, Grand Canyon visitors’ experiences and overall forest health on the Colorado Plateau and beyond.
The complex nature of fire ecology ultimately boils down to education and understanding of fire’s necessity in restoring forest composition. Because, after all, the experts agree it’s not a question of if the world’s forests will burn, it’s when.