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Wildfire-Related Tragedy Leads to Landmark Forest Restoration Partnership

Posted by L.F. Chambers, Office of Legislative Affairs, U.S. Forest Service in Forestry
Jul 28, 2015
A tractor working on trees
In July/August 2013 the Forest Service and City of Flagstaff, Arizona conducted a pilot project off FR240 (Schultz Pass Road) to assess impacts and capabilities of two types of logging equipment on steep slopes and best methods for slash piling on slopes (to allow for the greatest consumption during prescribed pile burning). (FWPP photo)

The Schultz Fire of 2010 started with an abandoned campfire. High winds blew the flames into neighboring trees and brush, igniting a wildfire that would grow to 15,000 acres of the Coconino National Forest and threaten residents near Flagstaff, Arizona. In the following days 750 homes would be evacuated. It took 300 firefighters several weeks to contain the fire in the steep slopes North and East of the city.

Flagstaff had been spared from fire, but not its aftermath. In July 2010, heavy flooding due to monsoonal rain events on the burned-over slopes of the San Francisco Peaks caused an estimated $133-147 million in damage to neighborhoods just outside the city.  A 12-year-old girl, Shaelyn Wilson, was killed when she was swept away in a flash flood.

“The danger doesn’t stop when the last embers go out,” said Erin Phelps, a Forest Service employee and leader of a multi-agency team on the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, an innovative partnership founded in the wake of the tragic floods. “If such disastrous floods could happen in these neighborhoods, they could also happen to the city of Flagstaff.”

In addition to the clear dangers to life and property presented by wildfire and subsequent floods, reports indicated that a similar fire could threaten as much as 50 percent of the city’s drinking water supply. Recognizing these dangers, residents of Flagstaff passed a $10 million bond to fund treatments on federal, state, and city land to improve their resilience to wildfire. As a result of this foresight and community support, the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project was founded in November 2012.

The Forest Service has since worked closely with representatives from the city, state and county as well as local Native American tribes and non-governmental agencies to plan the restoration projects that will remove the dense stands of timber around Flagstaff. Public involvement and input have been crucial to their progress.

Phelps and her team have received more than 500 individual comments from the public during the most recent comment period alone. They’ve also taken citizens and local leaders to particular areas and shown them what needs to be done in order to reduce the wildfire risk in the steep, technical slopes within the project site. The project will use a mix of helicopter and cable-logging alongside traditional ground-based harvesting equipment to remove selected trees from unhealthy stands, developing forests that are more resilient to wildfire.

“There is a real sense of urgency about this work,” Phelps said. “The partners on this team all feel an added accountability to each other and the public, and everyone understands the urgency in restoring the forest around Flagstaff.”

The Forest Service released its draft decision in June 2015 on how to proceed with this fire hazard reduction work, and following the objection and objection resolution periods, implementation could begin as soon as late 2015. Phelps says the decision will directly reflect public input and include a blending of treatments based on the comments received.

The project has been driven by public input and involvement at every step. One example Phelps cites is the issue of “viewsheds.” The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project received many comments about potential damage to the beautiful views that residents place such a high value on. Those comments helped determine where to use helicopter logging in the steep peaks, a form of logging that has less impact to forest resources than other types of operations but is also more expensive.

“The official environmental planning process has been a great opportunity to work with the public to weigh the different tradeoffs of various treatment methods on ecosystem services, such as cable logging versus helicopter logging and the impacts of those on recreation, economics and viewsheds,” Phelps said. “It’s critical that we understand what they want from this process, so we can provide them a healthy landscape but also protect their other interests as well.”

Phelps, a trail runner and mountain biker, also has a personal stake in all of this.

“I love to spend time in the mountains above Flagstaff,” she said. “This project will help protect our city, our neighborhoods and our water, but it will also help protect the areas Flagstaff residents use for recreation and ultimately, the reason they call this area home.”

This post is part of a series featuring the Forest Service’s work on restoration across the country.

Category/Topic: Forestry