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Igniting the Southwest

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The recent Flagstaff, Arizona Schultz Fire (the Father's Day Fire) holocaust has been the subject of national news over the past weeks. The flames engulfed some of the best, most beautiful Colorado Plateau country with some of the greatest hiking and running trails in Arizona. A shift in thinking among public lands bureaucrats is essential if this disaster is not to be repeated throughout the Southwest.

As a former resident of Flagstaff for eight years, I was always stunned by the fact that the Forest Service would allow people to build fires in the forest when conditions were primed for wildfire. When hiking in the Coconino National Forest, my wife and I put out abandoned campfires on a number of occasions. Campers would simply leave them. Even during times of fire restrictions, we would still come upon campers with active fires with the excuse "we didn't know" or "so-what."

The Forest Service claims to use a science-based scheme based on vegetation and duff moisture and other parameters to determine when to activate fire restrictions, but, like Deepwater Horizon technocrats, they never factor into account the boundless stupidity of humans. Or possibly they were prevented from doing so in the present case by the politics and profit motives of a business community that has already demonstrated, through their insistence on a build-out of the local ski resort on sacred Native American lands, a willingness to sacrifice the forests of the San Francisco Peaks to the engines of economic "progress." Well, now there will be a hell of a lot fewer tourists for a very long time since blackened forests do not a recreation area make.

This year, the Flagstaff area had a record-breaking year of snow and then 4 months of drought. Couple that with high winds and a Father's day influx of campers with the usual percentage the careless and uniformed, the game of Russian roulette looks rather sane.

No terrorist could have done a better job than the feckless bungler(s) responsible for the runaway campfire that ignited the Schultz Fire inferno that has burned nearly 15,000 acres (23 square miles). Imagine, building a fire during a drought when the relative humidity averages 7% on an 8000 ft elevation mountain pass where 20 -30 mile/hr winds will be funneled and accelerated as they then descend eastward from the mountain pass into an area of overstocked forest, itself a result of years and years of timber extraction and mismanagement. No computer calculations are required to grasp that this would be the stage for a perfect (fire)storm.

Would you let a six year old play with matches? Or even more to the point, would you allow that child to play with matches and an open gasoline can? That is exactly what agency managers have done in the case of the Schultz fire. This scenario will be repeated again and again throughout the west as the climate keeps changing.

Yes, fire needs to be reintroduced to western forest ecosystems, but a conflagration like the Schultz fire is not the kind of fire that will benefit either the forest or people. Potentially valuable wood products are lost and massive amounts of carbon are released to add to the atmosphere's already critical carbon dioxide burden. Moreover, this burned forest will not begin to sequester carbon in significant amounts for half a decade or more, well past the deadline to arrest probable runaway climate change.

We won't know the full extent of the damage for quite some time. We can hope that the fire burned only in patches, and did not achieve the temperatures that can sterilize or actually kill the soil. We can pray that at least some old growth might have been spared. I have on my mind the beautiful captivating song of the Hermit Thrush that sought the deep forested ravine near the now devastated Little Bear Trail on the north side of Mt Elden. He and his mate will have to go elsewhere next year, but we are running out of elsewheres.

This fire did not have to happen. Its prevention required only clear thinking and good judgment on the behalf of an unidentified infamous camper or campers unknown and some Forest administrators. A forest closure order was all that was necessary. It costs about $7000/day to close public lands while it cost $250,000 1 million/day to fight a forest fire, not including the other incalculable costs.

It is past time to sit up and take notice that we have entered a time of global warming, climate change, and severe drought in the Southwest. The juvenile notion that one needs a bonfire to enjoy the outdoors needs to be put away with other childish ideas. Open fires (except in monitored campgrounds) should be eliminated from public forests throughout the southwest. And the schmuck factor (as in Deepwater-Horizon) needs to be a priority consideration in every forest supervisor's toolbox.

If economics and human selfishness continue to trump the values of the natural world, then the future of humans on Earth will look much like the blackened forest of Flagstaff, Arizona.

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Paul F. Torrence is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, USA. His career spanned 30 years at the US National Institutes of Health where he was a Section Chief and then 8 years at Northern (more...)
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