When the call went out through the U.S. Forest Service channels that lightning had struck a single ponderosa pine tree near Upper Lake Mary in the early morning hours of July 11, Nick Castro, Fuels Battalion Chief from the Coconino National Forest, was one of the first at the scene.
Castro's job that morning was to suppress the fire as needed, but also to make an on-the-ground risk assessment for the fire’s potential. He spent time looking over and figuring out preliminary information such as where the burn is, whether the fire is burning near any structures or campsites and if it could endanger animals or forest thinning plots.
As Castro assessed the fire, it was decided the then-wildfire could be managed by fire professionals to meet multiple forest goals. Now known as the Newman Fire, it has been allowed to burn more than 888 acres near Flagstaff’s Upper Lake Mary as of Wednesday. Its planning area is currently more than 22,000 acres 10 miles south of Flagstaff and 2 miles west of Lake Mary.
Smoke can be seen in areas like highways, Kachina Village, Munds Park, and Flagstaff. The Narrows day-use area and Lakeview Campground have been closed in addition to areas around the burn area. Forest officials are considering using helicopters to burn out some areas deep in the planning area if weather allows.
Smoke emanating from the Newman Fire near Upper Lake Mary rises through the trees Wednesday afternoon.
Low intensity wildfires are used to help protect Coconino’s ponderosa pine forests from more severe damage by clearing dried shrubs, pine needles and grasses on the forest floor, ensuring that too much fuel does not accumulate and allow fires to reach the canopy of the trees. The fire can also help fertilize soils to help fresher grasses and shrubs grow from the soil after the fire has passed.
Forest fire officials stay vigilant during managed wildfires, watching the fires during these managed burns to ensure it does not allow the fire to burn through the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest unchecked, and possibly damage critical resources. The Newman Fire currently has 122 personnel working on the scene.
Making the decision of whether to manage a wildfire or suppress a wildfire goes beyond Castro’s job description, he said.
Matt McGrath (left), the district ranger for the Flagstaff Ranger District looks over a map of the Newman Fire alongside Kait Webb the public …
Matt McGrath, Flagstaff District Ranger, said the very next day, miles away from the fire, there were 15 people in a conference room getting further details on the Newman Fire planning area to determine if this fire could be managed to safely burn through the forest. He said the meetings took place over several days and included biologists, archeologists, range specialists who are making calls to verify their understanding of the area in preparation for a decision.
Fire historically moved through the ponderosa pine forest in three to five year intervals before the forest service responded by suppressing all fires, but the specific acreage in Upper Lake Mary hadn’t seen fire since before 2011.
First, the weather needed to be right to allow the fire to burn at a good pace, but not get too hot. The forecast had said there was a chance of rain around July 11, but it ended up staying dry. When the fire kept burning, one of their conditions for a managed fire had been met.
Next, the forest service needed to ensure the fire would not go near any of the forest thinning projects in the area, McGrath said. The lightning strike initially touched down close to a 4FRI timber thinning project.
Those trees had been purchased for forest thinning and removal, so if forest officials allowed the trees to burn, they would be contractually liable for the lost wood.
However, the initial suppression ensured that no fire would spark in a timber sale, so a second condition had been met.
The region where the Newman Fire was burning was known to allow grazing rights to 550 cattle in the area, McGarth said.
“550 cows don’t just turn on a dime,” McGrath said. If the cattle were near the fire and in danger, the fire would have needed to be suppressed.
In their meetings, they put out a call to confirm where the cattle were last spotted. When the cows were confirmed to have been grazing away from the burn area, they checked off that condition.
After assessing the concerns for public and firefighter safety, they also assessed the impact on wildlife. Castro said they worked to identify the locations of the Mexican spotted owls, bald eagles, osprey and northern goshawk that migrate, live and feed around Lake Mary to ensure they were not in their breeding seasons and could be protected.
Forest officials believed they had the personnel and tools to make that happen.
After clearing through the different hurdles, they made the decision that the wildfire could be managed at a low intensity.
Gabe Hale, the crew foreman of the wildland suppression fire module, talks about the Newman Fire near Upper Lake Mary Wednesday afternoon.
Gabe Hale, crew boss with the Wildland Fire Module Unit, explained that the fire has been going smoothly during his crew’s work on the fire line. He compared the management tactics as very similar to those used for a prescribed fire, but said the Newman Fire continues to be classified as a wildfire.
“This pine type is very fire adapted, and getting that fire back into the ecosystem is just going to benefit the existing stand, increase the health in the forest,” Hale said. “It’s a great place to reintroduce fire.”