The Two Wildfires Raging In Ariz. Burn Differently

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Two major fires are burning in Arizona — the Wallow Fire, which is the largest fire in state history, and the Monument Fire, which is burning near the Mexican border and a town called Sierra Vista. The fires are behaving very differently because the forests that are burning have been managed very differently.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

It may be early in the season, but Arizona is already battling a number of major wildfires. The Wallow Fire is the largest in state history and has scorched more than 500,000 acres. The Monument Fire is smaller, but it's burning close to the town of Sierra Vista, where some 10,000 people have been evacuated.

These two fires are behaving very differently. As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, that's because the forests that are burning have been managed very differently.

TED ROBBINS: Helicopters fly overhead dumping water on the advancing Monument Fire, trying to keep it from moving further into populated areas near the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Mr. GREG PONCIN (Commander, Northern Rockies Incident Management Team): These are really difficult situations because of the weather, the severe field conditions and really steep, rugged terrain.

ROBBINS: There's not much incident commander Greg Poncin can do about the terrain or the weather. The temperature is in the 90s. The humidity is less than 10 percent.

The fuel conditions could be better. The grass, shrubs, leaves and small trees near the forest floor, which carry fire quickly, could have been cleared.

Tania Schoennagel is a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado.

Dr. TANIA SCHOENNAGEL (Fire Ecologist, University of Colorado): Places like Arizona, New Mexico, parts of California, there are a lot of forests that really fit that bill that need thinning.

ROBBINS: So far, the massive Wallow Fire has burned more than a half million acres. It's the largest fire in Arizona history, yet it's spared four communities around which forest thinning was done. Around the town of Alpine, for instance, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell says the fire raced from closely packed treetop to treetop until it reached areas where the trees were thinned.

Mr. TOM TIDWELL (Chief, U.S. Forest Service): And because it lost that continuous supply of fuel in the top of the trees because of the thinning, the fire dropped to the ground, became a ground fire, where then our firefighters were able to be successful and suppressed that fire before it burned into the community.

ROBBINS: Compare that to the Monument Fire. So far, it's burned about 27,000 acres, far fewer than the Wallow, yet it roared through canyons, consuming homes, which had heavy fuel around them.

The thing is the Coronado Forest, where the Monument Fire is burning, was scheduled for thinning. The fire hit before it could begin.

It's only been in the last decade that thinning through prescribed burns and selective logging has become widely accepted. Before that, the government saw it as unnecessary, and some environmentalists saw it as a ruse to allow timber companies access to national forests. But now, Tidwell says the opposition is virtually gone.

Mr. TIDWELL: We have more and more support every day from not only the conservationists, from the environmentalists, you know, from our local communities about the type of work that has to be done.

ROBBINS: Over the last year, the Forest Service has thinned almost three million acres. That's triple the acreage thinned 10 years ago. Still, it could take decades more to thin all the national forests. Plus, 70 percent of the land next to forests is private. And forest ecologist Tania Schoennagel says it's hard to get landowners to make their property fire safe.

Dr. SCHOENNAGEL: Yeah. In the West, there is sort of the cowboy sentiment that don't tell me what to do, especially on my land. I mean, everyone feels that, but I think it's especially the case out West.

ROBBINS: Private efforts to aid federal forest thinning are just getting started. Meanwhile, because of climate change, the Forest Service says the fire season in many parts of the country is a month longer than it used to be. And so far, this year, wildfires nationally have already burned nearly as many acres as they did all of last year.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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