The Coconino National Forest released new information from fire investigators showing the Museum Fire was sparked by forest thinning work from the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project’s steep slope project when an excavator struck a rock during their operations on the afternoon of July 21.
“The spark is alleged to create a heat source that hibernated until warm, dry, and windy conditions arrived that caused the heat source to grow into a small fire and was subsequently spread by the wind,” the Coconino National Forest release stated.
The Coconino National Forest said the cause of the fire was not due to negligence, however, saying that all proper inspections of equipment were conducted. The fire investigation also determined the last piece of equipment was used 14 hours prior to the first report of fire, and the operator had completed a one-hour fire watch before leaving the area, according to the Coconino National Forest.
The new information 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.
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The Museum Fire burned 1,961 acres within the Dry Lake Hills above Flagstaff, burning through endangered species habitat, closing popular hiking trails and causing a small community along Elden Lookout Road to be evacuated. The threat of post-fire flooding has been left in the ashes of the fire for years to come. Current cost estimates are set at about $9 million for fire suppression efforts, which are initially paid for by the U.S. Forest Service's fire suppression funds.
Coconino National Forest Supervisor Laura Jo West said the restoration work in other areas actually helped stop the fire from becoming “larger and more destructive.”
“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 project has been running low on funds as it approaches the last phase of its forest thinning mission.
See tomorrow's Arizona Daily Sun for more information.