Ask a Ranger: The Museum Fire and the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project

Ask a Ranger: The Museum Fire and the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project

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Q: How did the Museum Fire impact the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP), and vice-versa?

A: That’s the big question now that many are working to answer. Let’s review the Fire Triangle and Fire Behavior Triangle to appreciate fire’s impact.

For fire to occur, three elements come together: fuel to burn, oxygen, and heat hot enough to ignite the fuel. Because oxygen and fuel are always present, heat is the wildcard. Mother Nature delivers heat in the form of lightning and lava (think Hawaii). Humans create heat primarily with friction. Investigation of the cause of the Museum Fire (or any wildfire) determines that initial source of heat.

Firefighting involves breaking at least one side of the Fire Triangle: cool the fire with water or retardant, smother it with dirt and starve the fire of fuel.

Also essential to understanding fire is the Fire Behavior Triangle, those three factors that influence how a fire burns: fuel (its arrangement, amount, moisture), topography (slope, aspect, barriers, shape, elevation) and weather (temperature, precipitation, humidity and most of all, wind). We can’t change topography or weather, but the side common to both triangles and potentially under human control is fuel.

Wildland firefighting safety and strategy is built upon knowledge and experience of these triangles, and the Museum Fire was an excellent example.

FWPP’s purpose addresses that fuel side of both triangles by reducing fuel in critical areas close to the community and on steep slopes upstream of vulnerable watersheds. The project was designed to moderate potential fire behavior across those landscapes.

Across much of the project area, fuel had been rearranged, but not yet removed. Cut logs had been stacked into large piles (log decks), while the leftover branches and small trees, known as slash, were in piles waiting to be burned, or still strewn across the ground.

Two thinning contracts were in progress. The helicopter logging contract was almost complete. The helicopter functioned like an aerial logging wheel. Recall those historic logging wheels we see around Flagstaff, pulled by draft horses that dragged felled trees from stump to deck —a helicopter is a more powerful and more expensive tool that does the same task.

The helicopter logging operation generated several large log decks. In today’s timber market, this wood does not have much economic value. One deck had been sold and removed, likely to be used for pallets and firewood. Two decks burned during the fire. A few decks that escaped the fire will be sold soon. But one or two log decks await a more fitting function.

Post-fire Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) efforts include stabilizing burned slopes against rain runoff, and this is where those log decks come in. Those logs will be chipped into mulch and scattered by helicopter across the burned slopes.

The separate steep slope contract, using other specialized logging equipment, was about half complete, and is being re-evaluated.

Though incomplete, the thinning treatments did make a difference, limiting the rate of fire spread and the intensity of burning. Without FWPP, the Museum Fire would have been worse.

Relationships developed to accomplish FWPP are now relied upon to tackle post-fire flooding and other challenges. City of Flagstaff and Forest Service staff are committed to carry on the project, in partnership with Coconino County, the NAU Ecological Restoration Institute, American Conservation Experience and Arizona Conservation Corps.

Residents can do their part by respecting the Museum Fire closure area. It is a bummer that some of our favorite hiking and biking trails are shut down again after having just re-opened. Stay tuned, informed and aware of weather and ongoing forest operations by monitoring local news, City of Flagstaff and Coconino National Forest social media and the FWPP website,

Karen Malis-Clark, an 8-year volunteer with the Roving Rangers, is a retired Coconino Nat'l Forest Deputy Public Affairs Officer. Her fire experience includes the Schultz Fire and post-fire rehab. She came out of retirement to assist with Museum Fire Information.

The NPS/USFS Roving Rangers volunteer through a unique agreement between the Flagstaff Area National Monuments and the Coconino National Forest to provide Interpretive Ranger walks and talks in the Flagstaff area each summer.

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