Lightning strikes, flames spark and a wildfire becomes an ally in restoring forest health

Joshua Bowling
The Republic | azcentral.com
The Stubbs Fire was ignited by lightning striking this tree on July 9, 2018. Officials quickly decided to turn a naturally-occurring blaze into a managed burn.

PRESCOTT NATIONAL FOREST — Like many fires, this one started with a spark.

Pete Gordon was in the forest about 30 miles outside Prescott when he saw it — a single ponderosa pine looming above the rest, set ablaze by lightning from a monsoon storm.

Gordon doesn't get out of the office as much as he used to. But on July 8, rain was falling and lightning was flashing in the Prescott National Forest. Gordon, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief, went on patrol.

He drove through the Camp Wood area looking for damage from the lightning. A trail of smoke about a mile or two away rose above the forest's winding dirt roads.

He followed the trail, hoping to find something.

He found the burning tree, its orange-tinted bark now blackened, and he knew fire managers could use it to the forest's advantage.

Within 10 hours, a plan was in place: What was now called the Stubbs Fire would be allowed to burn, but under the guidance of fire crews. They would manage the fire's movements in ways designed to improve the forest's health, with a goal of preventing more costly fires in the future and making conditions safer for future firefighters.

A decade or more ago, fires like this one might have been extinguished immediately. But fire experts say that policy of fighting all fires contributed to overgrowth in forests and helped create the conditions that have fueled the largest wildfires.

"I could've ordered a fire engine to come put this thing out, but I declined that," Gordon said. "If we would've put it out, we could've done that the next day."

Flames lick at the base of a tree in the Prescott National Forest. The Stubbs Fire was ignited by lightning but managed as a prescribed burn.

'Why would you put this out?'

Prescribed burns don't happen overnight, but fires like this do.

The long-term planning and paperwork that goes into a prolonged prescribed burn is condensed into hours' worth of work to make sure officials get on a naturally caused fire as soon as possible.

Gordon was at the right place at the right time and, officials say, had the right idea. The choice to manage a naturally caused fire rather than extinguish it signals a shift in thinking about forest health and fire prevention.

Forests evolved with fire that usually came in the monsoon months. Putting them out too quickly lets fuels such as grass and brush continue to accumulate and allows conditions in the forest grow more ripe for catastrophic wildfires.

After finding a blaze, firefighters used to ask whether they should do anything other than put it out, Gordon said. If not, they assumed it was worth extinguishing.

"Now, we want you to ask a different question," he said. "'Why would you put this out?'"

Gordon saw a chance to help restore fire's role to the forest, briefly and at a specific location, and bolster the health of the ponderosa pines, the watershed and the wildlife that depend on them.

Prescribed burns typically take a long time to plan. Officials use them to focus on clearing debris, slowing new growth and diversifying the forest's composition. Burning easy targets, like overgrown grass, removes the fuel that would spread smoke and flames to the forest's more precious resources in the future.

The Prescott National Forest isn't the only one using naturally-caused fires to its advantage. Coconino National Forest fire managers announced Friday they were using four lightning-caused fires, each measuring a few hundred acres, for the same purpose.

Fire managers typically schedule prescribed burns for the fall, when chances of the fire getting out of control are low. But those burns are expensive — they take time to plan and sometimes dozens of people to manage.

With a fire like this, officials can re-introduce fire to the forest during times it historically burned and, toward the end, have just a few people working it.

"For decades, we have typically looked to the fall for our burning — it was convenient, it was efficient," he said. "But that's not when it typically burned."

'Everything's in our favor'

Like the forest itself, firefighting has evolved.

Forests and their ecosystems matured with naturally-occurring fire hundreds of years before firefighters came along and started extinguishing them.

Now, they look to use fire in the role it once filled: a cleaning, restoring force.

One year before the Stubbs Fire ignited, the lightning-caused Hyde Fire lit up Camp Wood. Officials used that to manage the forest's health and widely viewed it as a success.

Managing a fire during monsoon season often means battling the rain and more wet conditions that bring the vegetation right back.

But using a fire like this doesn't come without a cost. Some trees will be lost, but officials say that's better than doing nothing and letting a catastrophic fire take much more of the forest.

"So many times, we hear fire in a negative tone — 'it burned,' 'it ravaged,'" said KC Yowell, U.S. Forest Service fuels assistant fire manager. "We killed a few trees along the way, but that's OK."

Two weeks after the Stubbs Fire started, Yowell was able to target areas and light them with nothing more than a red Bic lighter.

"Historically, this is the time of year that fire would burn," Yowell said. "The time frame is right, the location is right ... everything's in our favor."

'The grass is green now'

The Stubbs Fire was ignited by lightning in the Prescott National Forest, but managed as a prescribed burn to help improve forest health.

During the Stubbs Fire's first two weeks, the forest got its fair share of rain — nearly three inches, according to officials working the fire.

In the days after the initial burns, rain fell and the grass grew back greener than the pieces that hadn't been burned. The rain has impeded some of the burning, but it never completely put out the fire, officials say.

"The area that was burned two weeks ago — the grass is green now," said Levi Guffey, a Prescott National Forest fuels crew captain.

Officials have a "planning area" for burns like this one. It's a wide perimiter marking each plot of land they can burn, but not everything they will burn. 

The Stubbs Fire's planning area is more than 20,000 acres. Fire managers won't burn the entire area, but focus on the plots within the planning area they see as the most in-need, and look to keep corridors for wildlife between the scorched areas.

Officials on Friday said the fire had grown to nearly 3,700 acres and would continue to grow for several days as weather permitted. If rain puts the fire out, their burn will end.

They typically won't burn the entire planning area because it would cause too much smoke or wouldn't leave wildlife a clear trail to food and habitat. But sometimes, as with the Stubbs Fire, rain and wet conditions set the burn back.

"(Rain has) been the struggle this whole time," Guffey said. "Patience is tough."

'Fire has a role'

Leta Schoeller, part of a Prescott National Forest fuel crew, uses a drip torch to ignite brush as fire managers worked on the Stubbs Fire. The fire was ignited by lightning and officials decided to turn the naturally-occurring blaze into a managed burn.

Guffey stops his pickup truck on the dirt road. He rips off his ball cap, throws a hardhat on and jumps out, joining others who are working to put out a flame from the Stubbs Fire.

The flame jumped the road, getting away from the planning area.

The key to a controlled burn like this is to target the brush covering the forest's floor. When that brush is overgrown and catches fire, its smoke can waft up and light or kill the trees. That's how costly fires often start.

"Sometimes it's baby steps," Yowell said. "You've got to treat the pines so you can treat the brush."

Rather than let the fire burn or extinguish it, they strategically manage it in chunks they call "mosaics" — swaths of burned patches next to tiles of unburned patches — to give wildlife a natural path to food and water.

The crews are focused on stripping back that growth of the brush. They watch the brush burn and take action if it puts trees at risk.

"If you have too much of anything, it's not a good thing," Guffey said. "We're trying to target that age, class, diversity."

Treating the forest means that, going forward, conditions won't be as ripe for a wildfire to get out of control and firefighters will be safer when managing the blaze.

Guffey and the crews work to burn the brush and keep the trees intact. Keeping the forest diverse by leaving vegetation of different ages and species helps keep a wildfire from spreading too quickly, he said.

"All this stuff behind us solidifies what we're doing here," he said, looking at the green grass growing where they had burned just a couple days before. "Fire has a role."

Gordon, who initially spotted the fire, wants to treat the forest, bring fire back to its historical role and reduce the amount of fuel sitting around and waiting to kindle the next big wildfire.

And like many in the area, he remembers the Yarnell Hill Fire, dropping to a somber tone when speaking of it.

"Some day, somebody's kid, daughter, husband, wife — they're going to be out there fighting fire," he said. "We're reducing the risk of what will happen for decades ... to me, that's probably the most important thing."

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