The 40,000-acre Woodbury Fire 12 miles east of the Phoenix suburbs is large, but it is nowhere near as big as the five largest in the recorded history of the state, according to the graphic prepared by the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service.
On a recent October day south and west of Alpine, AZ, James Nesslage and Brandon Billy were harvesting a bumper crop of cones from the top branches of a 100-foot tall ponderosa pine. That tree and others like it are survivors of the 538,049-acre Wallow Fire that burned in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 2011, most of it within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The cones being picked will yield the seeds needed to continue the restoration of parts of that vast burn.
Plans to restore the forest began before the Wallow Fire was contained. Initial estimates were that high burn severity over much of the fire area would result in natural regeneration being hampered by a lack of available seed trees.
To have the best chance of survival, seedlings must be grown from cones taken from parent trees in the area. Patrick Murphy, silviculturist on the Apache-Sitgreaves, explained:
Several factors are used in determining where cones are harvested and from which trees seed is collected. The forest has pre-established “seed zones”. These seed zones are geographic locations found throughout the forest. In collecting seed we take into consideration if the parent tree is free from insects, disease, defects, deformity, or forking. The tree should also exhibit superior height and diameter growth. We will plant seedlings in the same seed zone and elevation band where the parent tree is located.
Earlier in the year, there was a larger crew of 20 people harvesting the seed cones. Now as the cone picking season, which began in mid-August, was winding down, there were only two other people; father and son Randy and Brandon James, working that day. It would take two to three hours for each team to completely strip the tree of its cones. “The contract specifies eighty-percent (of the cones on each tree)” said Mr. Nesslage, “but we try to do better than that”. The pine that the James duo picked that morning barely produced a bushel of good cones while the tree that Mr. Nesslage and Mr. Billy harvested yielded over three bushels.
A general contractor in the construction business, Mr. Nesslage came across a solicitation for a seed cone harvesting contract on the Federal Business Opportunities website and thought it was a chance to put some of his climbing experience to good use. “Go camping, climb trees and get paid for it! Sweet!” was his reaction. He was awarded a contract and started picking in 2012. He admitted that the learning curve was a little steep at first but was able to complete the harvest. The cone crop in 2013 was poor and was not picked, so when Mr. Nesslage’s teams returned to the woods this year, not only was there more to harvest, they had a larger crew and more knowledge of how to do the job better and more efficiently.
A report has been released that had the objective of determining if fuel reduction treatments are effective in reducing the severity and cost of wildland fires. It was prepared for the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire by the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. The reason it was written is interesting, according to the report: (emphasis added)
The Office of Management and Budget, Government Accountability Office and the United States Congress have repeatedly asked the Office of Wildland Fire in the Department of Interior and the United States Forest Service to critically examine and demonstrate the role and effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments for addressing the increasing severity and cost of wildland fire. Federal budget analysts want to know if and when investments in fuel reduction treatments will reduce federal wildland fire suppression costs, decrease fire risk to communities, and avert resource damage.
The report has a catchy title: The efficacy of hazardous fuel treatments: A rapid assessment of the economic and ecologic consequences of alternative hazardous fuel treatments: A summary document for policy makers.
Here are a few of the conclusions reached by the 12 authors and researchers:
Studies that use the avoided cost approach to examine the cost of fire demonstrate that treatments result in suppression cost savings.
Modeling studies that evaluate the effectiveness of fuels treatments in terms of changes in wildland fire size, burn probabilities, and fire behavior demonstrate that fuel treatments applied at the proper scale can influence the risk, size, and behavior of fire therefore reducing suppression cost.
Modeling demonstrates that fuel reduction treatments are effective at reducing fire behavior (severity) where implemented, and can successfully reduce fire risk to communities.
Although few studies exist on the topic, fuel reduction treatments significantly enhance the price of adjacent real estate, whereas homes in close proximity to a wildfire experience lower property values.
Two men who are cousins have been ordered to pay $3.7 million for accidentally starting what became the largest fire in Arizona history. Last May David and Caleb Malboeuf left a campfire unattended in the eastern part of the state which escaped and became the Wallow Fire, eventually burning 538,040 acres, which includes 15,407 acres after it crossed the border into New Mexico.
The Malboeufs have asked the U.S. Magistrate to set the monthly payments for Caleb at $500 and $250 for David. At that rate it will take them about 4,900 years to pay it off.
The $3.7 million only includes claims that have been filed and approved by the court for actual damages that occurred, mostly on private land. The U.S. Forest Service agreed not to seek repayment for $79 million in suppression costs. However the agency and any of the victims could later initiate civil actions against the Malboeufs.
A report has recently been released that highlights several examples during the Wallow fire when fuel treatments, modifying the vegetation near populated areas, were effective in reducing the intensity of the fire, making it possible for firefighters to remain in the area and prevent structures from burning. The fire burned in eastern Arizona in May and June, 2011. It burned 522,900 acres and 32 homes, becoming the largest fire in the history of the state.
Fuel Treatment Units Slow the Wallow Fire– Allow Firefighters to Safely Attack
As the main fire enters the ½ mile-wide White Mountain Stewardship Fuel Treatment units located above Alpine, the blaze drops from up in the tree crowns down to the surface level. The fire’s rate-of-spread dramatically slows. Thanks to the influence of these previously developed treatment units—implemented beginning in 2004—flame lengths are now low enough to allow firefighters to safely attack the fire and protect homes and property.
Engines and crews successfully extinguish the spot fires. To further protect residents’ houses, these firefighters also conduct low-intensity “firing operations” from roadways and other fuel breaks. These aggressive firefighting suppression actions continue throughout the evening—successfully halting the spread of the Wallow Fire into the community of Alpine. In fact, all of this community’s structures—but one—are saved from the fire’s attack. (Actually, this single structure burned several days later when an ember—most likely transported downwind during the June 2 crown fire run—smoldered for several days before flaring up.)
The report was written by Pam Bostwick, Jim Menakis, and Tim Sexton, all of the U. S. Forest Service.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs published an article today about a Liaison Officer being used on the record-setting, 532,086-acre Wallow fire in eastern Arizona. It is not uncommon for a Liaison Officer to be assigned to large, complex, multi-jurisdictional fires, but the article makes the point that this is the first time since the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire that the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association has provided one to a fire. Serving in that role was Assistant Fire Chief Chris Jessop of the Show Low Fire District until he was relieved by Northwest District Fire Chief Jeff Piechura. They have been serving as points of contact for the five fire departments and other local agencies in the Wallow fire area.
The Liaison Officer is assigned to the Command Staff and works directly for the Incident Commander, though in this case they may be working for the Area Commander.
Officially, this is how the position is described:
Incidents that are multijurisdictional, or have several agencies involved, may require the establishment of the Liaison Officer position on the Command Staff.
The Liaison Officer is the contact for the personnel assigned to the incident by assisting or cooperating agencies. These are personnel other than those on direct tactical assignments or those involved in a Unified Command.
Liaison Officer major responsibilities and duties:
Be a contact point for Agency Representatives.
Maintain a list of assisting and cooperating agencies and Agency Representatives.
Assist in establishing and coordinating interagency contacts.
Keep agencies supporting the incident aware of incident status.
Monitor incident operations to identify current or potential inter-organizational problems.
Participate in planning meetings, providing current resource status, including limitations and capability of assisting agency resources.