Published Jan. 9, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Arizona fire damage softened by snow. The Chediski Fire left areas of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest looking like a New England winter scene.”
2015 Update: The Forest Service is using fuel treatments such as prescribed fires and thinning stands of trees. No update on the website, http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/asnf/home, on how the Rodeo-Chedeski fire area has recuperated.
By Barb Gorges
The view from my sister and brother-in-law’s house two weeks ago was of ponderosa pine forest decorated for Christmas in several inches of fresh snow.
Beth and Brian Dykstra live in Heber, which, like other small towns in the White Mountains of central Arizona, has been reduced to a vacation destination. Once one of the area’s logging communities, founded before the turn of the century, it is now a string of businesses along the highway backed by rural subdivisions built in second growth timber.
Last June the Chediski fire caused Beth and Brian and all their neighbors to evacuate for more than a week. Brian, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, had already headed to the Rodeo fire near Show Low, 40 miles east. He worked as a “dozer boss,” clearing fire lines and saving homes.
Beth, a Forest Service recreation planner, left the family pets with other evacuees before reporting back to the district office in Overgaard, Heber’s twin community, to field phone calls from distressed residents and deliver daily updates to evacuees.
Fire came within three-quarters of a mile of Beth and Brian’s house and within 500 yards of the office, but burned homes of several friends and coworkers.
Six months later it was only natural that while waiting for the Christmas turkey to roast we should tour the nearby burned areas.
The layer of snow prevented us from seeing ground damage. Beth said most of the ash disappeared during the annual “monsoon” rains later in the summer. In many places, without any assistance, tree seedlings were soon sprouting as thick as grass.
Volunteers wanting to plant trees have been turned away. What’s really needed, Beth said, only partly in jest, are people to stomp on some of the seedlings and keep the forest from growing back so thick again.
However, in other places where the fire burned too hot, the soil has become “hydrophobic” and won’t absorb moisture at all, putting off regrowth indefinitely.
Where we first turned off Highway 260 into the Black Canyon, some of the ponderosa had blackened trunks and their lower limbs held needles singed an orange color.
Beth said if a tree retains at least 30 percent of its needles undamaged, it may recover. However, the drought responsible for the severity of the fire may continue, adversely affecting survival.
For a stretch the road seemed to have contained the fire to one side of the canyon, but then there was a whole expanse devoid of green, orange or any other color except the blue sky silhouetting each charcoaled tree.
In another part of the country, New England for instance, this could be a typical winter landscape—except maples don’t have a ponderosa’s shape.
During an hour’s drive we saw over and over the mosaic pieces of unburned, singed and burned forest. Coming out on the highway again by Overgaard, Beth pointed out the mounds of snow marking foundations of houses unlucky enough to catch stray embers while neighboring houses survived.
Both Beth and Brian were, after the fire, immediately assigned to the Burned Area Emergency Rehab team to assess areas most in need of erosion control before the rainy season began. Brian said 50,000 acres (of the 176,000 acres of Forest Service land burned) were seeded aerially with a mix of native grass species and then mulched with hay.
“Bale bombing,” dropping 1000-pound bales from airplane cargo nets, tended to spread the hay unevenly. In other places, members of a four-wheeler club from Phoenix were happy to use their off-road vehicles to deliver 70-pound bales for other volunteers to spread.
Brian hopes the state game and fish department will take measures to reduce the elk herd before their grazing undoes the rehabilitation effort.
We saw mourning doves while on our tour. They too see the seeding effort as a food source when usually, by this time of year, they would have already migrated to the desert.
Beth has since been assigned to the salvage team. “Categorical exclusions,” actions excluded from analysis as in-depth as an environmental impact statement, are allowing the clearing of dead trees within 100 feet of roads, buildings, recreation areas and power lines. These are places where the trees could cause damage when they eventually topple. Burned forests are hazardous places to be on a windy day.
Many of the burned trees I saw were too small to be valuable timber. Beth said they would be knocked down to become soil amendments. The larger trees are salvageable for lumber up to 18 months after a fire.
Burned trees are generally regarded as too messy to be harvested for firewood, although someone is working to set up a power plant that could use them for fuel.
Damaged trees will attract insects and insects will attract birds. A researcher from Northern Arizona University has contacted the Forest Service about studying the effects of the fire on the hairy woodpecker, an insectivorous species.
Someday managers will figure out how to achieve natural ponderosa forest, those grassy parks dotted with mature “yellow pine,” yet still satisfy the nation’s lumber needs.
Meanwhile, months from now, the spring thaw will bring flooding to fishless streams, but it will also show what healing has taken place as it melts the gauze bandage of snow.