It was unseasonably warm near the top of Schultz Pass as nearly a dozen men used chainsaws and heavy equipment to cut firewood last week.
Beginning at about 4 to 5 a.m. each day, the crew from the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico use chainsaws, bobcats and splitting machines to turn the 12- to 14-foot-tall stacks of logs into large piles of firewood.
The goal is twofold, said Neil Chapman, project manager for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. That project has included extensive forest thinning projects around Flagstaff in order to protect drinking water from wildfire.
Turning those thinned logs into firewood provides them a way to get rid of the thousands of logs the project has created, all the while providing much-needed firewood to residents across northern Arizona during what has been a difficult time, Chapman said.
“It's cold, it's winter, we want this stuff out. A lot of it is dry and can be burned this year, so we want to make sure that, rather than having wood sitting here, that it's sitting in people's yards and they're getting to burn it,” Chapman said.
Much of the firewood has made its way to nearby tribal lands where it serves as a critical source of heat throughout the winter.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with recent closures of the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Coal Mine, contributed to an increased demand for firewood, Chapman said.
Chapman said the city has been coordinating with private companies, government agencies, nonprofits and community organizers to distribute the free firewood as well as working with individual families that simply call them asking to pick up wood.
On Wednesday of last week, for example, several residents from Cameron drove up to load as much wood as the beds of their trucks -- and in one case, their horse trailer -- could hold.
Red Feather Development Group in Flagstaff, which works on issues of housing on tribal land, is one such organization helping to distribute the firewood.
Terry Smith, program manager at Red Feather, said they have delivered close to 170 cords of firewood across the Hopi reservation and to Leupp.
"There is not an abundant source of firewood locally to parts of the reservation," Red Feather Executive Director Joe Seidenberg said. "We wanted to make sure families had adequate heating options."
In all, Chapman estimated they have close to 200 truckloads of logs still waiting to be processed into firewood, or about 2,000 to 3,000 cords of firewood.
Forest resource specialist Carl Livingston has been leading the crew processing the wood and said that given the amount of wood they have on site, he expects them to be working until mid-March.
Livingston, who with a cowboy hat and large beard has the appearance of a quintessential mountain man, said their crew has worked many jobs processing firewood, but nothing on this scale.
The project is also unique in another way, Chapman said: It is rare for projects to process timber into split firewood as opposed to smaller logs that residents then need to split themselves.
“We are not just loading pickup trucks with green wood rounds or dropping logs in a lot for others to deal with,” Chapman said. “Individuals are loading trucks, trailers, dump trucks and side dump semi-trucks full of split, seasoned firewood that can be burned this winter.”
Chapman said the scale of the current project is not only unprecedented, but significant in timing for members of the community who are struggling. It is a win-win situation, as the donations allow the FWPP to remove wood from the working areas.
The project previously hosted an open giveaway throughout a weekend in early December. While more than 100 vehicles and trailers were loaded with firewood, Chapman said the high amount of public interest and inclement weather caused some vehicles to be turned away.
Chapman took that experience as a learning opportunity and is seeking to improve public access through scheduled appointments and expanding community partnerships.
Project managers are currently developing an online system to manage scheduled appointments. An announcement with specific details will be posted to the social media pages of the City of Flagstaff, Flagstaff Fire Department, Summit Fire and Medical District and Coconino National Forest at a later date.
Chapman said in the meantime, many residents are contacting him directly, adding that the project is unlike any he has seen during 15 years in Flagstaff forest management.
Reporter Adrian Skabelund contributed to this article. Brady Wheeler can be reached at email@example.com.