Arizona: Sitgreaves Complex Managed Fires

(Editor’s note. Today we are welcoming another writer and photographer to the Wildfire Today family. Tom Story, based in Phoenix, is a former newspaper photographer, now self employed editorial and commercial shooter, a one time National Interagency Fire Center contract photographer, and a longtime friend of the wildland fire community. Tom not only researched and wrote the article, but took the photos as well. Bill.)


Sitgreaves Complex Fire
The crew from Kaibab National Forest Engine 314 — (left to right) Berkeley Krueger, Ben Winkler, and Keith Halloran, consult a map as they plan the day’s managed ignitions on the Sitgreaves Complex August 8, 2014.

“When monsoons arrive in northern Arizona, it is the ideal time for us to manage fires. Fire plays an absolutely essential role in keeping the forest healthy and in reducing the likelihood of high-severity fires that could threaten our neighboring communities,” said Art Gonzales, fire staff officer for the Kaibab National Forest.

So when a lightning strike on Sitgreaves Mountain, between Flagstaff and Williams, Ariz., on the evening of July 13, 2014, ignited a fire, one of several started on the Kaibab National Forest from summer thunderstorms that day, the Kaibab had plans in place to manage it as a resource benefit fire with the hope that they would be able to have the fire treat up to 19,000 acres of mostly ponderosa pine.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Ground fire from managed ignitions moves across the floor of the Kaibab National Forest on the Sitgreaves Complex August 8, 2014.

Resource benefit fires are managed for multiple objectives including reducing accumulated forest litter and fuels, maintaining fire in a fire-adapted ecosystem, increasing firefighter and public safety, and protecting cultural resources and wildlife habitat.

The Sitgreaves Fire occurred in an area that had been clear cut in the late 1800s-then reseeded, leaving a large area of similar aged trees and because of subsequent policies by the Forest Service, pretty much untouched by fire for over one hundred years.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
The Grand Canyon National Park Helicopter, Papillon Helicopters’ A-Star B3 8PA, was used on the Kaibab National Forest’s Sitgreaves Complex for aerial ignition using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD), August 8, 2014.

“Only natural ignitions may be managed for resource benefit objectives,” said Holly Kleindienst, the Kaibab’s deputy fire staff officer. “Human caused starts must be suppressed according to the Forest Service’s 2009 Guidance for Implementation. From 1970 to present, lightning accounts for about 75% of the 150 wildfires that start on the Kaibab each year. Our supporting Forest Plan, and community support, coupled with plenty of lightning are the reason that the Kaibab has been able to treat an average of 11,000 acres per year with lightning caused wildfires since 2003,” she continued.

“Here on the Kaibab we’ve found that fires managed for resource benefit objectives typically incur about 1/10th of the cost per acre of a large suppression incident. This is due to the smaller organization and limited use of aircraft these fires typically require,” continued Ms. Kleindienst. “For agencies with more complex terrain, more extensive urban interface, or a more complex fuels matrix they might not witness these types of savings, but they have been consistent here on the Kaibab since 2003.”

The forest also began managing other starts to the north, on the Tusayan (Hammer and McRae fires) and North Kaibab Ranger Districts (Quaking Fire) of the Kaibab, in a similar manner. As of August 10, the Hammer was at 8871 acres and the McRae 5505, reaching their maximum planned sizes. The Quaking Fire was inactive having reached its final size of 496 acres.

The Sitgreaves, and a smaller nearby start, the Duck Fire, were combined into one management unit, becoming the Sitgreaves Complex on July 21.

“The Kaibab National Forest understands the need for restoration and is part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. This initiative is aimed at accelerating restoration across the four forests with a variety of treatment methods, fire being one of those,” continued Mr. Gonzales. “The use of fire as a restoration tool is what the initiative is trying to achieve, and our Land Management Plan supports the same concept across the entire forest.”

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Sarah Auerbach of the Kaibab National Forest Fuels Crew uses a drip torch on the Sitgreaves Complex, August 8, 2014.

The high country of Arizona gets heavy recreational and tourism use and with the Kaibab National Forest bordering Grand Canyon National Park on two sides and the cities of Flagstaff and Williams nearby, smoke from managed fires is always a concern to many in the area. Ms. Kleindienst believes in being up front with the public, telling them that there will be smoke and educating the public on why they have chosen those management objectives and tools. “We understand that with every activity in the forest that we, as federal land managers, must continually balance the ecological outcomes with the social and economic impacts that we have on our neighbors. A good part of the Kaibab’s success in wildfire management is due to the investments we’ve made in employing excellent public affairs and fire prevention personnel who provide information and education on our fire adapted ecosystems to the public year round, and who have built up an excellent rapport with local media, and public leaders. When smoke is in the air from wildfires, the media and public leaders understand our range of wildfire management tools, and are able to help us garner support for our ongoing wildfires,” she said.

Mr. Gonzales adds; “Kaibab National Forest fire managers engage personnel at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) early, often, and continually throughout the life of either wildfires or prescribed fires. ADEQ is the regulatory agency that monitors and regulates Arizona’s airshed. By engaging ADEQ in the planning process for wildfires and prescribed fires, our managers can utilize the skills and expertise from within ADEQ staff to help monitor both health and visual smoke impacts to local and non-local communities.”

Depending on the complexity at the time, the incident has been managed by the forest as a Type 3 or Type 4 organization and used personnel and crews from other National Forests, the Department of Interior and Arizona State Division of Forestry to assist the Kaibab’s resources.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Dennis Kirkley of Kaibab Helitack loads the plastic sphere dispenser (ping pong ball machine) with plastic spheres. Grand Canyon Helitack’s A-Star came down to do aerial ignition on the Sitgreaves Complex August 8, 2014.

When the Sitgreaves nears it maximum planned size of 19,000 acres, the natural fire and aerial ignitions will have burned down off of the higher elevations and up to the complete blackline crews put in around the perimeter of the planning area. The fire staff is hoping the entire area will have been treated before winter arrives. If not, there will be next season. Restoring forest health is a long-term process.

The fire has burned 10,876 acres as of August 13. Continue to follow the Sitgreaves Complex at

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Flames back down Bald Mountain on the Sitgreaves Complex, a managed fire on the Kaibab National Forest August 7, 2014.

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4 thoughts on “Arizona: Sitgreaves Complex Managed Fires”

  1. It’s good to do prescribed fires (call it what it is) like Sitgreaves at safe ERC’s and dew points.


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