Flagstaff battles forest fire

May 16, 2007

Joe Haughey needs no time to think about what this mountain Arizona towns biggest worry is.

We live in an island surrounded by trees, the Flagstaff city council member said. The single most deadly threat we face here is forest fire.

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(Listen to Fire Dept.’s Mark Shiery on the dry conditions in Flagstaff)

Like much of the U.S. Southwest, Flagstaff has been experiencing a drought since 1999. Upper Mary Lake, a reservoir that provides much of the towns water, is now down to 18 percent of its capacity. Trees not only surround Flagstaff, they are all over town.

Were about two and a half to three years behind where we should be in terms of precipitation, said Shiery (pictured), the assistant fuel manager at the Flagstaff Fire Department.

Dont be confused by his title, the fuel Shiery has to manage is the trees, grass and other vegetation that could, can and does burn here on a regular basis. This area experiences about 300 forest fires a year, most of them between May and September.

The trees give the place and Alpine feel and look, but this is still almost desert country. Its dry enough to make the 1.8 million acres of trees that surround Flagstaff a very large tinderbox.

One of the problems that Shiery faces is that mankind has been far too successful at suppressing forest fires in the past century and the risk of wildfires is now higher than ever.

Fire is a dynamic beast, Shiery said on a tour of the forest around Flagstaff. It is part of the ecosystem out here and thats all there is to it.

Over the past century, largely putting out fires that occur naturally though farming practices and cattle grazing have also played a role young trees have filled up the gaps that would normally be left open for forest grass.

These gaps help slow a fires progress. But with some 800 Ponderosa pines per acre, instead of a natural average of between 15 and 30, there is so much more wood to burn.

So Flagstaffs fire department starts controlled fires in some areas to try to open space in the forest and return it to its natural state.

By controlling and monitoring these fires we can reduce the risk of big fires which are so much harder to deal with, Shiery said.

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