Arizona fire damage softened by snow

Rodeo-Chediski fire

Smoke billows from the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona in 2003. Courtesy Wikipedia.

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.

Forest fire aftermath

It will take a while for this burned area in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming to green up. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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Wildfire affects family and wildlife

Burned forest

A wildfire in Wyoming in Medicine Bow National Forest seems to have burned even the reservoir of seeds needed for quick regrowth. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 11, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Arizona fire affects family, wildlife.”

2014 Update: Big wildfires seem to make the news earlier every year, and there seem to be more of them. People who live next to fire-prone wildlands can learn how to prepare for fire season, http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/prev_ed/.

By Barb Gorges

Once, in just a few days I managed to add 20 birds to my life list.

We were visiting Arizona, where even the most common birds were species I’d never seen before, such as yellow-eyed juncos and acorn woodpeckers.

I would not have expected to travel to Arizona before reaching retirement age, but we were visiting my sister Beth who was working as a recreation planner for the Apache-Sitgraves National Forest and lived in Pinetop-Lakeside.

Many of the new birds were seen on a short trip further south, to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Madera Canyon near Tucson, but even Pinetop, up in the White Mountains, had a new, southwestern species for me, the black phoebe, and one I had yet to identify in Wyoming, the pygmy nuthatch.

At first, Beth rented a cabin so buried in the ponderosa pine she shivered even in summer. When she bought a house, she made sure it didn’t have a single pine on the lot. Though she’s worked a lot of fires in her career, I think she was considering solar heat more than fire safety.

Last year Beth relocated to the Forest Service office in Heber where her husband is a wildlife biologist. Their present house is in a piney neighborhood, but on a lot open except for a few small trees next to the house and a couple larger ones out by the road.

The small trees succumbed to some quick chainsaw work a couple weeks ago. After my brother-in-law left to work the Rodeo fire, Beth had to evacuate. Luckily, her office also had to evacuate, to an old field camp where Beth could leave the family pets.

Except for the day the Chediski (think “Cheddar Sky” when you pronounce it) fire singed the Heber office’s front lawn, Beth and her few remaining coworkers came back every day to man the phones.

Most of what I know about the fires I learned from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle’s coverage and secondhand from my mother who has been acting as family dispatcher. Beth is home now, however, the fire season is not over.

Many of the homes lost belonged to seasonal residents who can stay home in Phoenix while they decide what to do about rebuilding, but what about Beth’s coworkers and other year-round residents who lost their homes?

What happens to wildlife? If Bambi’s neighborhood burns and he escapes to the next valley, will the deer there share their scarce resources during this drought year, or will Bambi have to make do with the most marginal habitat? Or does he change the pecking order in the new valley and force some other deer to relocate, causing a ripple effect?

What about birds? I wouldn’t think your average bird could out-fly a crown fire racing through treetops. Do birds smell smoke and evacuate an area? Or, if there are any birds left after a fire, is it because their territory happened to be one of the many patches the fire skipped?

Coincidently, during the first week of the Rodeo-Chediski fires, I happened to read the May/June 2002 issue of the U.S. Department of Interior’s “People, Land and Water” magazine which was devoted to wildland fire and the new national fire management plan.

The article that caught my eye was “Birds and Burns in Ponderosa Pine Forests,” written by Natasha Kotliar from the Midcontinent Ecological Science Center. The MESC is one of 16 science centers in the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey and is headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo.

She described a plan to study the ecological consequences of three fire conditions: unburned forests, prescribed understory fire and wildfire, in three locations including Arizona.

The article didn’t list where the no burn areas were going to be, but there will be an abundance of burn areas to choose from.

Beth and her husband have worked plenty of fires before, but never so close to home that they needed to evacuate. This time they will have front row seats for studying the recovery of the land and wildlife—and the people.

Even though the fire isn’t completely contained as I write this, already both Beth and her husband are beginning forest rehabilitation work. Wish for them not so much rain that the soil washes away, but only enough that the seeds sprout.