Opinion: With fires in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, it’s not a matter of if, but when

Tunnel Fire, April 19, 2022
Tunnel Fire north of Flagstaff, AZ, April 19, 2022, as seen from O’Leary Lookout in Northern Arizona. USFS photo.

This article first appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun. It is used here with their permission and the author’s.


Arizona Daily Sun Editor’s note: This is a bit unusual, to run a column on the front page, but I thought Mark’s perspective from his more than two decades working with Hotshots was a valuable read. He wrote this on a personal basis and not on behalf of any fire or forest management organization.

By Mark Adams

This has been a rough year for extreme fires in Flagstaff.

Before most of the U.S. Forest Service seasonal workforce was even finished with their mandatory two weeks of training, the Tunnel Fire started in one of the windiest areas of the San Francisco Peaks, during one of the windiest springs I can remember. In addition to that, it was located in the Schultz burn scar, which, at 12 years old, was primed for a fast-moving and difficult-to-contain fire due to the tall grass and kiln-dried logs that are easily receptive to any hot ember that decides to land on it. The Tunnel is what one seasoned “fire dog” referred to as a career fire — meaning that experiencing a fire like that happens once a career, if at all.

Amazingly, this fire was in mid-April, and sadly, many structures were lost, despite the huge, aggressive firefighting effort. The Tunnel Fire was unprecedented for the amount of damage caused in that short amount of time. In a typical year the Coconino averages around 175 fires, and nearly all of them are caught early and mostly go unnoticed by the average Flagstaffian. This summer we have had around 23 fires already and two of them have become career fires. Both escalated to become the No. 1 priority fires in the nation, the Tunnel and now the Pipeline Fire.

I moved to Flagstaff 28 years ago from the East Coast and like most other Flagstaff transplants, the Peaks drew me here and have been my sacred place. The Peaks are the heart and soul of Flagstaff; some might say they are the heart and soul of the state. When I moved here, I knew nothing about wildfires. The little I did know was from what I saw on the news about the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Like most people, I didn’t understand why fire managers were letting Yellowstone burn and not putting them out; I was mad that all those forests were burning. If the internet had been around, I would have been a loud critic of the Forest Service, just like so many people today commenting in online forums like they are experts in forest and fire management.

Fast forward many years later, after a long career as a Hotshot, I now better understand wildfire and the critical role it plays throughout our Western forests. All of the forests are flammable and will burn, eventually. The work we do and our efforts each year are done in hopes that they burn under our terms.

During my career, my crew and I have been emergency-shifted from one fire to another two times. The first time was on an afternoon in 2010 when I was a Mormon Lake Hotshot and we were on the Tecolote Fire in New Mexico. The radio sounded out from Incident Command: “Get Flagstaff and Mormon Lake hotshots off the mountain and come to ICP and demob immediately, there is a situation on the Peaks in Flagstaff.” In a matter of hours (which is lightning fast in federal government time), we were out of the Santa Fe Wilderness and on the road home to help fight the Schultz Fire. The next day we were briefing with fire managers at the Chevron station on Highway 89. We would be deployed behind the homes of Timberline and tasked with doing whatever we could to protect them.

History repeated itself this week. While on the Cerro Bandera Fire south of Grants, New Mexico, I received a text from Flag Dispatch of a new start. These texts come daily and normally I read them and say to myself, “Oh, they’ll catch that one” — because we do 98% of the time. This time was different. Upon checking the text, I immediately realized this one could be a problem — it’s windy and it’s in a bad spot. After making a few phone calls, once again my crew and I were quickly released and on the way back home to protect the mountain we and so many others love so much. We made it to the fire seven hours after it was first reported, lightning fast considering we started that day in a different time zone.

Pipeline Fire north of Flagstaff June 13, 2022, by @russdussel
Pipeline Fire north of Flagstaff June 13, 2022, by @russdussel

Luckily that night we were able to help others piece together a plan and save many homes through quick action and, ironically, having the already burned ground of the Tunnel Fire helping us. Had that fire scar not been there, the Pipeline Fire would have destroyed many more homes than the Tunnel Fire had.

The next few days, grueling work was put in by my crew and many other crews from around the nation. I am forever grateful to the three Hotshot crews from California that were with us on the ridge below Fremont Peak. Ninety people hiked in and out every day, working some tough ground that spanned from 8,500 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The air was thin, the hazards were too numerous to count and if someone got hurt, medical extraction would be challenging. The alternative to this option was not good. Had we not been up to the work, the fire would have continued to the west and with the strong westerly winds gone, it would have torched the entire mountain. All of Flagstaff would have been buried under sandbags for the foreseeable future.

Flagstaff dodged another bullet. We got lucky — lucky the firefighting resources were available, lucky they recognized the situation, lucky we were willing to accept the risk of injury or worse. It’s coming. It’s only a matter of time. All of the Peaks, minus the rocks, are flammable and will burn someday.

End of story.

Recognizing and accepting this will only help to protect our Peaks. I say this because we have altered the natural cycle of fire for far too long. Now we have one of the most sacred places in the Southwest that is primed and more than ready for a catastrophic fire. Our challenge is to ensure that it doesn’t burn all at once and try to stay as close to the natural cycle as possible. And that natural cycle includes stand-replacing fires. We have a long way to go in protecting not only the Peaks but our forests in general, and it is time that we wake up and do what needs to be done. Everyone talks a good game, but we all can do more to ensure that we have healthy ecosystems to live in for generations to come.

There are ways that we, as a community, can limit the catastrophic results of the Big One:
1. Allow for day use only on the Peaks and Dry Lake Hills near Highway 89, 180 and across Forest Road 418.
2. Follow all campfire restrictions.
3. Educate the influx of out-of-towners moving here, often unaware of our wildfire-dependent and prone ecosystem.
4. Do everything in your abilities to prepare your home/property for wildfire. The 10 years you prepare before a fire are far more important than the 10 minutes or even hours before a fire — no matter how many engines, crews, airtankers and helicopters are available.
5. Support and obey any forest closures and don’t whine about it!
6. Get used to smoke! Support aggressive, forward-thinking fire management, including managing fires under the right conditions on the Peaks and across the forest.
7. Reward and support active fire and forest management, including prescribed burning, even if there is an occasional bad outcome (99.8% of all prescribed fires are successful).
8. Question managers that do not take risks, by choosing the safe route — putting all forest fires out small, never managing a fire for resource benefit and not conducting as many prescribed fires as possible. They are just kicking the can down the road.

The Peaks are going to burn again and I would much rather they burn when we say so. Not when a campfire or burning toilet paper decides to get one going in the wrong spot on the wrong day. The choice to manage a fire or light a torch for prescribed fire is not one that we take lightly, the responsibility is huge! Things sometimes go wrong despite the best intentions. But the alternative of doing nothing has only one outcome and it’s not good.

Remember, it’s not if, it’s when.


Mark Adams has been a Hotshot on the Coconino National Forest since 1999, working on all three crews: Blue Ridge, Mormon Lake and Flagstaff Hotshots. He is currently the superintendent of the Flagstaff Hotshots. He wrote this as a concerned resident of the Flagstaff area — not as a representative of the Forest Service or Coconino National Forest.

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19 thoughts on “Opinion: With fires in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, it’s not a matter of if, but when”

  1. Thank you, Mark. I couldn’t agree more that we should not stop burning because a prescribed fire or wildfire managed for ecological benefits goes wrong. The outcome of a Rx fire gone wrong is the same as a wildfire, which is what is going to happen if we don’t do something. The outcome of a Rx fire that goes right is a forest that is resilient to wildfire on a bad day, and it might prevent a fire manager from dying or a house from burning. For those that say we could just do it mechanically – I am so tired of repeating this – There are many places mechanical treatments are not feasible (like the peaks) because it’s too steep, costly, and/or it’s roadless/wilderness. Fire is the only option in a lot of places.

    Also, thanks for calling out the managers that are too scared of their own shadow to make a call to put some good fire on the ground. If you are not willing to take the risk, there are other agency jobs out there that pay just as well that you can do.

    Although your recommendations make a lot of sense, I cannot say that it doesn’t sadden me to think that it has come to the point that we cannot trust people to camp anymore. I have a lot of great memories camping on the peaks as a kid and young adult. Maybe a seasonal restriction would be good enough, late spring and early summer are dry and windy, but late summer and fall are pretty green times of year up there?

  2. Thank you for the well written piece Mark. All of it is current and important information. Thank you Bill for bringing Mark’s thoughts to a wider audience.

  3. Washburn Fire Yosemite. Source: Union Democrat Sonora, Ca. Air Tankers Cancelled on initial attack, again???

  4. Good write up. but as they say in the AK fishing world: “everyone wants to be a captain, till there’s captain things to do”. we can always call out leadership, but you need to think about stepping up to those leadership roles to implement the change you want to see.

    1. Tobin,
      I can assure you that Mark is well more than qualified and has stepped into those leadership roles many times. He, more than most firefighters has been at the forefront of the fire organization as a life long hotshot who has witnessed first hand how the forests are changing. You have to understand that the forest service is not just a fire organization, we also have to work with these people they call “line officers” and many of those folks have very little if any experience with fire. So, in short Mark has done those “captain’s things”.

  5. Well said, Mr Adams.
    The only thing that I would add is that this applies everywhere in the West, it is only a matter of when and under what conditions fire will occur. We can be proactive or reactive, hopefully both with an emphasis on being proactive. I especially liked the line about 10 years before the fire being much more important than the 10 minutes before you have to evacuate, and would hope everyone in the West realizes this.

  6. Great article however he only talked about how managing fires can be good. Timber cutting and thinning also needs to be done. I to worked for Forest Service starting on the Coconino in 1986 on Eldon District and then up in Oregon. We did a lot more thinning projects, controlled burns and more patrolling Forest when there are more campers out there. And general public now thinks they are entitled and Forest is theirs personally and can litter and do whatever they want instead of following rules.
    Until the public changes their attitudes , our Forests will suffer and FS will be who the public blames instead of themselves.

  7. Easy to say “Get used to smoke” if you have AC and are not asthmatic! Few people in Flagstsff have AC and fewer can afford to get it. So instead, we swelter in over 90 degree temps in a closed up, too hot home which can also be dangerous for older folks.

    There has to be a better way to solve this issue. Maybe the state needs to set up funding so people can get closed system AC; then fire management can do all the controlled burns they want.

    1. Most of our prescribed fire are conducted in the fall when temperatures are no where near 90. The fact that flagstaff is surrounded by the largest ponderosa pine forest is why everyone should get used to smoke… the same reason why people in the Gulf states should get used to hurricanes, and the mid west tornados… nowhere is perfect. Flagstaff is pretty great but if you want to live here you have except the fact that it’s a forest that needs fire to remain a healthy forest. I will be the first one to say I hate smoke and I breath it more than most… but what I hate more is catastrophic fires in my own back yard… and we will have more of them if we (the public) doesn’t get on board and accept that we need to do more.

      1. Mark,

        Excellent article and points of view ~ ! I must say, that made for very enjoyable reading! I especially appreciated the way you emphasized that fire is a natural part of the forest and that by putting an end to all fires may be responsible for the situation we’re in today. I read on the news that the Oak Fire burning near Yosemite is burning in an area that hasn’t burned since 1924. YIKES! That’s almost 100 years !

        I would like to add something concerning natural fire cycles here if I may. I suspect there is a reason why Mother Nature put highly volatile turpentine in pine trees. Why? I think that reason is because it allows dead needles, twigs and other “litter” to burn when they are damp. Any camper who has ever tried to start a campfire in the woods after a rain knows this. The first thing you try to light are dead pine needles and twigs, right? That’s especially true if you only have one match left ! 😊

        So, ideally, what’s supposed to happen is that if a forest fire starts under damp conditions, the result is what we might think of as a “cool” fire that sweeps across the forest floor and does the fire-tolerant pines no harm but kills young hardwood saplings that would compete with the pines.

        A wise man wrote long ago back in the 1940s, “Where there are pine trees there is fire because if there were no dry season, you’d have a hardwood forest. Therefore, you could say that if there were no fire, there would also be no pines.” – American author George R. Stewart from “Fire”. By the way, that’s a fun book to read. I think it’s out of print now but it’s not hard to find a copy of it on Amazon or Abe’s Books.

        Regards,
        Fred M. Cain

    2. 100% of our prescribed burns are done when temps are no where near 90 degrees… most are done in the fall. I hate smoke too and I breath it more than most. The fact is if you live in Flagstaff you have to accept the fact that there needs to be smoke in the air to restore our forests. No place is perfect, the south has humidity, the mid west is bitter cold, the northwest rains all winter. Flagstaff is in the middle of the largest ponderosa pine forest in the nation. Smoke is part of it. I would rather be used to smoke than get used to more catastrophic fires.

      1. I’d like to see the rules changed to allow more aggressive tactics (including airborne ignitions?) during “prescribed burns” (as opposed to “managed wildfires”) so that indeed we could see more of these big treatments occur in the cooler months when wind direction is more predictable. For the past couple decades, big treatments needed to wait for a lightning strike in a favorable location and of course that meant hot temperatures and unpredictable winds due variable summer winds and thunderstorm downdrafts. All of this leads to smoke in populated areas. I think the problem is the “managed wildfire” and would like to see those go away in favor of more aggressive “prescribed burns.” (Could be a budgeting issue due to virtually unlimited budget for wildfires?)

  8. For newcomers to this site, please read other earlier Wildfire Today articles and comments about the Hermits Creek and Calf Canyon escaped prescribed fires this year and the vast damage done. Also, the body can NOT “get used to” smoke. Even if a person thinks it isn’t damaging their health, the consequences, including heart disease and stroke, severe respiratory diseases, and cancer, often appear later. Children’s lungs are still developing, and they can have lifelong problems from breathing smoke. Children can’t just leave, and adults have commitments to the area where they live and also can’t just leave.

    1. You are technically correct the body cannot get used to smoke, it has made my life on the earth shorter for sure… but forests cannot go on forever and not burn… they just continue to become over grown and eventually have a catastrophic fire that we as fire fighters cannot contain…yes the a calf and hermits were escaped prescribed fires and that sucks for sure… I was on those fires fighting them after the escape and it was terrible to fight them and they were devastating to those communities. The best plans and intentions occasionally have bad outcomes. There are no articles about the other 99 percent of RX fires that were successful. Nor is there any news about the catastrophic fires that never happened because of those forest treatments… I have been doing this a long time and when I fight a fire on land that has been treated it is much easier to contain and the fire does not damage the landscape nearly as bad as it would have. Rx fires in the fall are much better than unplanned fires in June.

      1. Mark,

        I grew up in Arizona and have always been fascinated by the weather. So, I can vouch for the fact that Arizona has a SEASONAL drought EVERY year. There is very little or even no precipitation from about mid-April to early or mid-July. Climate change notwithstanding, it has always been that way. This seasonal drought just happens to coincide with a time of year when solar radiation is at its highest level and air temps are also often at their highest point. It is also a time of year when we get “dry cold fronts” that produce high winds and little or no rain or snow.

        So yes, a Rx burn in the fall is better than a wildfire in May or June. If people just won’t tolerate the smoke, then they should live in Pennsylvania or someplace like that !

        Regards,
        Fred M. Cain

  9. One more thing that I’d like to mention here – or at least somewhere – is that I’m seeing a lot of pessimism. Due to climate change, there was an article that due to warmer, drier conditions, our burned forests cannot recover.

    https://www.paysonroundup.com/news/forest_management_wildfires/hot-dry-forests-can-t-recover-from-wildfires/article_9e503660-9c86-5688-a5f8-ff9c66880dcc.html

    Another article tried to show that ponderosa pine forests could disappear altogether.

    https://www.wmicentral.com/news/latest_news/study-ponderosa-pine-forests-may-vanish/article_d13ed40a-67af-5f65-89e1-086ded64b96f.html

    My best guess is that ponderosa pines are more resilient that that. They might very well adapt to warmer, drier conditions. At least one can hope.

    Here is a striking video of a flash flood following a wildfire:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-C_KUnfcUc

    People’s attention tends to focus on the devastation that the debris-laden flood is causing. But I noticed something else in the video. This appears to have been shot in an old burn scar, possibly the Schulz Fire. There are numerous young pine seedlings and saplings that can be seen but you have to look for them. The flood may have taken some out but not all. So, you see, the forest is recovering possibly in spite of climate change. It might just take a little longer.

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