The San Francisco Peaks stand out above the forests and can be seen from the houses and streets of Flagstaff. The peaks are covered with snow during the cold winters, and buzzing with hikers, bikers and other outdoors folk during the summer.
Now helicopters are adding to the mountain traffic as they transport fallen trees off the steeper portions of the mountain in an attempt to thin the forests through the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Projection. The project aims to prevent high-severity wildfire and post-wildfire flooding in the forests surrounding Flagstaff’s residents and resources.
Helicopters have been lifting and transporting bundles of cut trees to planned landing areas since mid-January. The operations will take place during daylight hours, seven days a week, for what they expect to be three to five months, according to a release from the project.
Many residents whose back doors open up to the national forest say they hear the helicopters. And while the helicopters can be heard outside of many peoples homes surrounding the closure area, some residents don’t mind the current level of noise if it means they can reduce the risk of wildfires.
Wanda Krenke, who lives behind the Flagstaff Medical Center and near the helicopter operation, said she has seen and heard the helicopters operating from inside her home. She lives on the edge of the forest near the Flagstaff Medical Center and said they’re used to medical transport helicopters flying near their home.
“It doesn’t bother us,” Krenke said. “It’s pretty quiet up here. But then again, weather has changed since it’s started, so how much have we really heard?”
Krenke said she supported the helicopter thinning and as a person with asthma, she supports it more than prescribed burning.
Marissa Moezzi, who lives on a road attached to North Quintana Drive, said she doesn’t mind the helicopter noise and can hardly hear it from inside her home. Moezzi said she has lung cancer and likewise favors the helicopter operations much more than the prescribed burns.
“I’m not foolish, I don’t think we can do nothing. I don’t want Flagstaff to burn down,” Moezzi said. “But I feel like I would love to see more effort put in to alternative methods."
"Helicopters don’t seem ideal, but what can you do?” she added.
The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project was approved by voters in 2010 for $10 million to thin the amount of trees from several areas around the city in the hopes of preventing catastrophic forest fires.
The current helicopter operations include nearly 900 acres of the Dry Lake Hills areas that is too steep for normal mechanical thinning operations. The two contracted thinning groups splitting the acreage include Markit! Forestry Management from Colorado and Smith Forestry Services Inc. from Oregon.
John Winnicki, who lives up East Mount Elden Lookout Road within the closure area, described his home of 40 years as “landlocked” by the forest. In June he said he packs his valuables into separate family homes or storage units to make possible fire evacuations easier.
He said that he supports the mission of the project, and since it began has noticed the ponderosa pines on his property were too growing too close together, a sign of an unhealthy growth.
“Being here so many years, I look at all the trees I have here -- none of them have gotten any bigger, they’re still too close,” Winnicki said.
He said he hears the sounds of the helicopter echo off the side of the mountain and can see them from his back door. Since the operations began in January, Winnicki said that the helicopters have not flown over his house.
“It’s no worse than having traffic on the [Highway] 180. You live on 180, you get used to it. You live with it,” Winnicki said. “This is a benefit for us. They’re not doing it for them; they’re doing it for us.”