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Prevention is key to upcoming fire season

Forestry Department and local Hotshot crews have focused on clearing out fuel sources in preparation for the upcoming fire season. Photos courtesy USDA Forest Service

As fire season draws near, the Globe Ranger District is bracing for whatever the summer brings after a relatively quiet year since Telegraph rained fire and brimstone—followed by monsoon flooding—on the Globe-Miami region.

Thanks to the short lull and increased federal funding, regional agencies have been completing necessary work to clear out underbrush and other fuels that have sprouted up due to recent increased precipitation and cooler than normal temperatures.

“We’ve been incredibly busy with the prescribed burning of fuel in several remote areas,” says Barry Johnson, Fire Management Officer for the Tonto National Forest (TNF) Globe Ranger District. “We’ve hired a fuels battalion chief and a fuels technician for the Globe Ranger District and they’ve built one heck of a program.”

Much of the recent work was done during the last two weeks of April in cooperation with the San Carlos Apache Tribe and covered a 1,174-acre area at the Timber Camp Recreation Area.

The project, dubbed the Highway Tanks Tribal Forest Protection Act (TFPA) fuel reduction project, was intended to “treat” national forest lands abutting tribal lands in one of the more remote areas of the TNF.

Treating is the process of reducing the amount of fuel by thinning, prescribed burning and pruning.

Reserve Treaty Rights Lands (RTRL) crews, provided by the San Carlos Apache Tribe, worked alongside forestry department crews thinning underbrush in national forest lands near Timber Camp and Jones Water, a primitive campsite about 17 miles north of Globe on Highway 60.

The RTRL program employs and trains members of the San Carlos Tribe, and certifies them so they can go into the field.

Thanks to $32 million in funds available from the USDA for a wide range of projects throughout the west, the multi-agency work will help reduce the chances of fire in a place that is difficult to navigate due to its remoteness and lack of nearby infrastructure.

The funds will also be applied to “cross-boundary projects” on Apache Sitgreaves and Coronado National Forest lands as part of the Forest Service 10-year strategy to address the wildfire crisis.

Reducing fuels, by burning the underbrush, reduces the potential for large fires to occur.

“We entered into a 638 agreement with San Carlos Apache Tribe and they came out and helped us with the burn,” Johnson says. “The mix of leadership was from the Forest Service and the Tribe. We had people from both sides in key positions, so it was really a good collaboration for our first one.”

Public Law 93-638, also known as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, was passed in January 1975 and was intended to provide indigenous tribes “full participation … in programs and services conducted by the Federal Government for Indians.”

The 2018 Farm Bill allowed tribes to “take over the management and functions of the federal government under the TFPA with certain conditions.”

Working with the Forestry Department, tribal employees did much of the prep work and implementation of the project and enhanced the manpower available from the Globe Ranger District.

“The RTRL crew did probably 80% of the firing on these units, because they’ve been running chainsaws for the last three months in this area, prepping burn blocks and doing a lot of hard work,” Johnson says. “To reward them for their work, they did some of the funnest parts of prescribed fires and actually lit the fires.”

Beginning the prescribed burn at Timber Camp.

The Sonoran Desert has been classified as a national priority landscape because of its diversity and fragility. Available funding helps implement the USDA’s wildfire crisis strategy, outlined in a January 2022 publication titled “Confronting The Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.”

In a “call for decisive action,” USDA and the Forest Service laid out a strategy to increase fuel reduction efforts by “up to four times current treatment levels in the West.”

“Wildfires have been growing in size, duration, and destructivity over the past 20 years,” the document states. “Growing wildfire risk is due to accumulating fuels, a warming climate, and expanding development in the wildland-urban interface. The risk has reached crisis proportions in the West, calling for decisive action to protect people and communities and improve forest health and resilience. It will take a paradigm shift in land management across jurisdictional boundaries to reduce risk and restore fire-adapted landscapes.”

Between 2015 and 2020, more than 10 million acres of forest land burned nationwide due to increased wildfires. Residents of Globe, Miami, San Carlos and many smaller communities in the region were hit hard with a number of disastrous fires between 2018 and 2021.

The USDA strategy will develop partnerships to treat an additional 20 million acres of National Forest Service Lands; treat up to an additional 30 million acres of “other federal, state, tribal and private lands,” and develop a long-term plan beyond 10 years.

Johnson says his department has been meeting with members of the San Carlos Tribe every other week for more than a year. He added that he is also in regular discussions with the Gila County Cattle Growers Association and other agencies throughout the region including Gila County Emergency Management as well as the Globe and Tri-City fire departments to coordinate prescribed burns or prepare for the worst.

Planning for a prescribed burn is difficult and can take 18 months to two years to put in place. Since the Sonoran Desert is so environmentally sensitive, each burn must get reviewed and approved through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Limiting factors once that process is completed are wind and weather as well as fire restrictions in place at any given time.

Monitoring the burn lines.

Many of the landscapes treated by the Forest Service benefit from some form of fire, and prescribed burns can provide an artificial means when natural fires are suppressed. According to Johnson, Ponderosa pines exist in a “fire adapted ecosystem,” and in a natural state thrive when fires burn through every three to six years. Those fires can also kill competing, invasive species to allow Ponderosas to flourish.

“Ponderosas love to have fire to clean up the surface fuels, the timber litter, some of the brush and grasses underneath,” he says. “I’ve got a quote in my office that says, ‘better fires of choice than fires of chance.’ We want the burning to stay in control: We don’t want to kill everything, we want to treat it.”

After two relatively wet summers, Johnson says the National Weather Service forecast this year is for above average temperatures and below average precipitation, which could make fire season shorter, but increase the amount of fuel available.

“If you look at Flagstaff, in the third week in April last year there was a 20,000 acre fire in the timber, but this year there’s still snow up there,” Johnson says. “We had 200% to 1,000% above normal snowpack this winter in Arizona.”

Johnson adds that the month of June is “always a worry,” and cautions the public to be extremely careful from Memorial Day to July 4.

“People should be very careful with any ignition sources because that’s the crunch time,” he says. “A fire that starts with a human cause at the end of May or in June won’t get any weather relief until the beginning of July, if at all and we might even get more dry lightning.”

Johnson hopes to bulk up his own department soon and fill some new management positions in order to get some relief for his department that has worked itself to exhaustion several years in a row.

“It’s challenging, after Woodberry, Bush, Gin-Griffin, Salt and Telegraph all in the last five years,” Johnson says. “The firefighters are like, man, when are we going to catch a break? Last summer was pretty tame and mellow, but we always have to be prepared.”

A healthy prescribed burn takes out the underbrush while leaving trees intact.

One comment

  1. Nicely done article. Brought back some old memories. I grew up in the old Housing Project in Claypool, went to grade school at Lower Miami and graduated from Miami High in 1960.

    In 1955 (as I recall) my Dad took me to see the movie “Red Skies of Montana” at the Alden Theatre in Globe. That was the day I decided I wanted to be a Forest Ranger in Montana when I grew up. In pursuit of that dream, the summer I turned 18, I started fighting fire as a “pickup” out of the Globe Ranger Station of the Tonto National Forest where I first worked as a summer fire patrolman and then as the Signal Peak lookout for a couple of years in the Pinal Mountains

    In 1964 I enrolled in what was then the School of Forestry at Arizona State College in Flagstaff and graduated with 12 classmates in 1968. My BSF in hand, I began working my way up through the career ranks as a fire specialist primarily in California, and Montana. My dream was jump-started when I was assigned to a regional overhead fire crew out of Pollock Pines, CA.

    But my dream lived on. Primarily because of my fire experience, the Montana State Forester’s Office contacted me soon after my sophomore year at NAU had been completed. They were persistent. I arrived in Missoula in December, 1968. The path to my dream was a long, winding one but well worth it.

    In 1983 I ended up joining the Washington, D.C. staff of a US Senator from Idaho where I served as his personal advisor for issues related to forestry, wildlife and mining. He decided to retire in 1991 but had paved a path for me to remain in D.C. as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Agriculture whose primary job was to oversee the political operation of the US Forest Service. By that time, I had grown older and perhaps even a bit wiser. As a result, I decided to get off the government path and look for a job that made ME happy. Fortunately, I found it!

    In 2003, my wife and I built our home here on our own little piece of heaven in Northwestern Montana where we intend to live happily ever after … THE END!

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