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Inside The Museum Fire

A stump smolders in this file photo inside the Museum Fire just beside Mt. Elden Lookout Road.

The Coconino National Forest is alleging the Museum Fire was likely sparked by forest thinning efforts from the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project’s steep slope work when an excavator struck a rock during its  operations on the afternoon of July 21.

The spark allegedly stayed warm enough under the forest debris until warm, dry, and windy conditions arrived that caused it to grow into a small fire that was spread by the wind.

Their investigations suggest the last piece of Smith Forestry equipment was used 14 hours before the first report of fire, meaning it was likely created sometime before 9 p.m. At that time on July 20, workers powered down their machinery and followed protocol by staying at the site for an hour to watch for smoking forest debris and flare-ups. Officials from the Coconino National Forest and City of Flagstaff suggest that the fire was not caused by negligence, as all proper protocols and inspections of the equipment were conducted.

The new information about the cause of the July 21 Museum Fire comes after weeks of citizens questioning how the fire began, and rumors spreading around Flagstaff in lieu of an answer on who or what caused the fire.

“While the cause of the fire is unfortunate, it does not take away from the significant mitigating impact the treatment work had on the fire and subsequently the forest and our watershed,” Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans said in the press release.

The Museum Fire burned 1,961 acres within the Dry Lake Hills above Flagstaff, burning through endangered species habitat, popular trails and leaving two dozen residents along Elden Lookout Road evacuated with hundreds more on standby. The threat of post-fire flooding remains in the fire scar for years to come. Current cost estimates are set at about $9 million for fire suppression efforts, which will be paid for by the U.S. Forest Service's fire suppression funds, according to Brady Smith, spokesman of the Coconino National Forest.

Michael Gardiner, assistant special agent in charge of the Southwest Region’s fire investigations, said he believed there will still be a few months of work left to be done before the entire report is complete.

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He attributed the long turnaround to the amount of interviews, hours of sifting through blackened dirt in the fire ravaged forests to identify burn patterns within the fire scar. In addition to sifting through dirt, Gardiner said lawyers and higher-ups need to sift through the documents to ensure a level of accuracy and thoroughness of work.

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Coconino National Forest Supervisor Laura Jo West believed the restoration work in other areas helped stop the fire from becoming “larger and more destructive.”

According to the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team, 40% of the fire burned severe enough to be highly likely to produce landslides within the Spruce Avenue Watershed, which looms above the area threatened by post-fire flooding. The remaining 60% of the burn poses a low risk of damage or loss, according to BAER risk assessments.

“It’s unfortunate that the Museum Fire started as the result of ongoing restoration work designed to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire and improve forest health and resiliency – especially in the Flagstaff area where citizens joined together to invest resources to help fund the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project,” West said.

The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project is funded by a $10 million bond approved by voters in 2012 for the purpose of wildfire mitigation in watersheds around Flagstaff’s interests.

The city’s Wildland Fire Management division predicts it will run out of funds by the end of December 2020, before the third and final phase of forest thinning covering Mormon Mountain and watersheds threatening infrastructure at Lake Mary has been completed.

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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