Managing Forests To Manage Wildfires

William Wallace Covington, Regents' Professor of Forest Ecology, executive director, The Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Mary Lata, fire ecologist, U.S. Forest Service / USDA, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Paul Summerfelt, firefighter, Type 1 Team Incident Commander, Wildland Fire Management Officer, City of Flagstaff, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Record breaking fires in the Southwest have burned thousands of acres, disrupting people and animals, and leaving muddy, flood-prone landscapes in their wake. Ira Flatow and guests discuss fire ecology, and how new forest management strategies may help stifle the blazes.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're in Flagstaff, Arizona, this week, broadcasting from the campus of Northern Arizona University. It's been another record-breaking year for wildfires here in Arizona. The Wallow Fire, which burned more than half a million acres this summer, is the largest fire ever in the state. The previous record-holder burned just shy of half a million acres in 2002, and here closer to Flagstaff, last year's Schultz Fire took 15,000 acres.

Fires, of course, are not uncommon in this part of the country. Flagstaff sits surrounded by the world's largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest, a type of forest that needs fire to renew itself. But scientists say decades of putting fires out has caused the forest to get too dense, making them more susceptible to those big, hot, devastating fires.

So, are these giant fires inevitable? Can dedicated forest management help to control them? And what role is climate change playing? This hour we're going to talk with someone who fights these big blazes, ask what it's like on the front lines of these fires, talk about people who manage them, and everything you wanted to know about forest fires we hope to get into some sort of topic today, this hour.

If you're here in the audience, we invite you to go up to the microphone and step up to the mic and not be afraid and ask your question. Also, you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and if you want more information, you can go over to our website at sciencefriday.com.

Let me introduce my guests. Right here on my left is Wally Covington. He is Regents' Professor of Forest Ecology at Northern Arizona University. He's also the executive director of the university's Ecological Restoration Institute. He's Mr. Forest Fire. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

WILLIAM WALLACE COVINGTON: Thanks for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to have you back. Good to see you in person for the first time.

COVINGTON: Good to see you.

FLATOW: We talk on the phone all the time. Mary Lata is a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Flagstaff, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARY LATA: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And Paul Summerfelt is a firefighter and a Type 1 team incident commander. Just what that means, Type 1 - well, we'll find out during the hour. He's also the wildland fire management officer for the city of Flagstaff. Paul, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PAUL SUMMERFELT: Thank you.

FLATOW: Let me as - let me begin with you, Wally. Let's talk about this Wallow Fire first. Over half a million acres burned, hard to imagine such a big fire.

COVINGTON: It sort of is, and it's sort of not hard to imagine. I think many of us in forest ecology and fire ecology, in particular, have been talking about this coming for 20 or 30 years now. What we've been seeing over the past 30 years is fires shifting from surface fires in these Ponderosa pine and frequent fire forests into crown fires, and then larger and larger crown fires.

FLATOW: You mean crown meaning the top of the tree?

COVINGTON: Right, burning through the treetops instead of just through the grasses and the pine needles that are on the surface. They're fundamentally different processes in forest ecosystems.

FLATOW: And why the shift, you say, over 20 years?

COVINGTON: Well, the shift - over the past 20 or 30 years, if you look at this over time, frequent surface fires shaped the evolutionary ecology of Ponderosa pine forest and dry-mix conifer, a number of other forest types, over tens of millions of years.

With Euro-American settlement and overgrazing, the grass that used to carry fire to sweep across the landscape in the understory was eliminated. At that point, then, we set up the perfect conditions for a population eruption of trees, and that's what happened. But it takes a while for these trees to grow up and get large enough so that they can serve as a fuel ladder and carry fire from the surface into the canopies of the trees.

And then what's happened over the past 30 to 40 years is that we've gotten more and more of the landscape filled in with these trees so that the fires are no longer 1,000 acres or 10,000 acres, they're now on the scale of hundreds of thousands of acres.

FLATOW: So it's easy for the fire to spread and jump around, from place to place.

COVINGTON: Oh yeah.

FLATOW: Mary, much of the blame for these huge fires is put on the Forest Service and their policy of putting fires out. Has that thinking changed on that?

LATA: It has changed. That way of thinking started probably in the early part of the century or earlier with European ideas about fire. And then we had Bambi, and we had Smokey Bear, and people continued to think of fire as something to be avoided and put out. They saw it burning up trees, which they assumed was a bad thing.

Over the last - particularly the last probably two or three decades, we've begun to much more readily recognize the role of fire in the system and that part of the problems we have came from putting it out. So we have this dichotomous challenge in front of us now. On one side, put it out, it's going to burn my house, it's going to do damage; on the other side, wait, wait, we need to let it burn, we need to reshape the system.

So this project that we're working with now the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which to save 10 syllables we'll call 4FRI from now on...

FLATOW: OK, good, like SCIFRI. We understand that.

LATA: Exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah, we get that. 4FRI.

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LATA: Right, and this is based on the work by Wally and other people in this area in particular for probably 10 years or more in trying to work on a scale that's going to make a difference.

FLATOW: And give us an idea of what that is. Is it a cooperative effort among different players?

LATA: Yes, the public is very involved in this. There's a very active group of the public that are called the Stakeholders, with a capital S, that is over 30 individual public entities who are very involved. They do research for us, they work with us, they meet once a month. They've been absolutely critical to this. It isn't just the Forest Service doing this. This is - it's a collaborative process in the truest sense of the form.

FLATOW: So everybody involved, whether it's the Forest Service, the timber people, the state, the municipalities, they know now, collectively, the value of creating these small fires and getting rid of the brush and weeding out.

LATA: Yes, and small in the sense of the size of the flames, not the extent, right.

FLATOW: Right, so everybody's on board with this idea. It seems really interesting, you've gotten the disparate parties to be able to agree on something. In this country, agreeing on something now is hard to come by, isn't it?

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LATA: Well, we have a few detractors out there, but the Stakeholder group encompasses such a broad faction of the people out there who would be involved that we've been able to work through what otherwise would be issues that would hold this process up.

FLATOW: And Paul, tell us: What does a wildland fire management officer do?

SUMMERFELT: Well, the program in Flagstaff started in 1996 as a direct result of several large fires that burned adjacent to the community and in the community that year. And it scared people. For those who lived here, panic was a norm. People felt that they were going to lose their neighborhood, their home. They were packing cars and leaving town. Summer visitors weren't coming. And it was a - smoke hung over town for a long period of time.

As a result of that, there was a decision made that we could not allow this to occur again, and we needed to take steps to prevent that. So the program that I managed and lead was started as a result of that.

FLATOW: And tell us what a Type 1 team incident commander does or is?

SUMMERFELT: There are 16 national Type 1 incident management teams in the country. And I am the incident commander for one of those teams, and the teams average about 50, 55 people each. Those are teams that are brought in to manage large events - primarily fire but it can be other things - that overrun or overwhelm a local entity's ability to manage, either by size, cost, values at risk, whatever has triggered that need.

FLATOW: So you get in touch with all the agencies or all the local communities and coordinate things?

SUMMERFELT: Well, when we go to an incident, we've been asked to come by those entities, and we manage the incident. We will plan operations. We will manage all the logistical side of supporting that. We put the firefighters on the line, give them objectives, ensure their safety, spend a lot of money - a lot of money.

FLATOW: I bet.

SUMMERFELT: And that's - if I was not concerned about this issue for any other reason than financial, that would bring me to this table.

FLATOW: Let me - in the few minutes before we go to the break, let me ask about starting these small fires for fire control. How do you keep them under control so they don't get into big fires? You want to...?

COVINGTON: Yeah, so one of the things - you know, I came to NAU back in '75, and the first - I came here, and I thought: Well, the simple solution, if fire caused the problem, you just put fire back in, and it'll solve the problem. Tried working with the Forest Service on a number of those and found out you kill the trees with that.

FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.

COVINGTON: They get out of control. Yeah, I could have - in 1979, I was almost the shortest-lived professor ever to show up, when we had a crown fire from one of my experimental projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COVINGTON: But anyway, so what we discovered was that the first thing you need to do is to thin out the excess trees that have come in since fire exclusion, and that is literally hundreds and hundreds of trees per acre. And then you can safely burn.

So it's kind of like if you look at it from a human health standpoint, if your blood pressure is 180 over 105, and you weigh 150 pounds more than you should, you don't just jump on a treadmill and start running. The first thing you've got to do is get your body into a condition where you can start, you know, exercising.

It's the same way with these forests that are over-choked. So that's what we call ecological restoration approach, to try to restore natural conditions, first by removing the excess trees, and then by safely reintroducing more natural fire.

FLATOW: So you bring the loggers in to remove the trees, or how does that happen?

COVINGTON: That's the hope, and one of the things that I think is particularly innovative about 4FRI is that we're trying to look at these trees not as a liability, which they are - as they are out on the landscape right now - but as an asset that can help pay for the restoration of wildlife habitat, watersheds and natural conditions across the land.

So the hope is that we'll be able to remove those trees and then get forest industry, wood industry to help pay for the cost of the (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: That's what everybody sees, industry and forest management, forest service, that's where they see it's a win-win-win-win for everybody.

COVINGTON: That's our hope.

FLATOW: And how far along are we on this, Mary?

LATA: Right now we have what we call a request for proposals, an RFP, out for a contract that would be 300,000 acres of thinning, which is the biggest the Forest Service has ever put out there. We don't know the results yet, and we won't for a little bit, but...

FLATOW: Could create jobs, right?

LATA: It would definitely create jobs locally. That's a really positive thing. This is very much a win-win situation. By doing that, we include - the whole breadth of the Stakeholders for part...

FLATOW: Everybody's involved. All right, we're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll take hopefully some questions from the audience. Don't be afraid to step up to the mic there, here, and we'll see - your questions, I'm sure, are much more interesting than mine. So don't be afraid to ask them.

We're going to come right back and talk more about fires with Wally Covington, Mary Lata and Paul Summerfelt. And you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. So we'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about wildfires, coming to you from Flagstaff, Arizona, with my guests Wally Covington, Mary Lata, Paul Summerfelt. We're talking about the 4FRI program. And there are some critics of it, especially - I'll just name one whom we talked to. The Sierra Club does not condone logging on public lands and told us: How do we know the Forest Service will do what the Stakeholders ask for? Who's going to monitor this to make sure that things get done?

LATA: We would call it thinning, not logging. Logging has a lot of bad connotations these days for some reasons that are good. The Stakeholders right now have a subgroup, the science and monitoring committee, that is putting together an adaptive management plan for us.

What they've done in the past, we have other documents they've put together that we use to help structure how we write it. So the public has lots and lots of opportunities to comment on what we're doing and let us know what they're happy with and what they aren't.

And the Sierra Club is part of the Stakeholder group that is - shows up regularly and has lots of input to what we do.

FLATOW: OK, let's go to the audience here. Yes, ma'am.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I would like to know why we don't give out camping permits or fire permits until too late into the year. A lot of these fires that have been devastating have been caused by campfires that have gotten out of control. And it seems like we wait until July, when it's very dry, to put out no more campfires, and I would like to see it happen in February. Thank you.

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FLATOW: No one has volunteered to answer that question. Mary?

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LATA: Now I realize I'm Forest Service, and people are looking at me, but I'm not involved in that part of it. I know it's partly politics and largely safety. It's a win - well, it's not always a win-win if you're the forest supervisor making that decision. You're going to make somebody mad no matter what you are doing. And I think that's a difficult decision to make.

FLATOW: Paul, you're not afraid of making people mad. So what do you think?

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SUMMERFELT: No, I guess I'm not. The - that's a very good question, and there is some - and I think this year we saw some changes as a result of what has occurred in the past. The decision to restrict activities in the forest or to get to the point of closure of a forest is - I will say is not done alone by the Forest Service, at least in our area.

We've been able to engage with a number of stakeholders, whether it's the city, the county, the state and the Grand Canyon, the Park Service, and then the Forest Service, as well, both the Kaibab and the Coconino, to try and make sure that the restrictions that are put in place are done simultaneously so we don't have some areas that are closed and some areas that are open, where by and large the public can't tell which side of a fence is federal land and which side of a fence is non-federal land.

So there's weekly calls that go on, that have gone on for the last several years during that time of the year, looking at trends where we are with conditions, resource availability to suppress fires that do occur and then decisions are made.

And looking back, some decisions probably have been made too late. I mean, that's the risk you run in this kind of business. But I think that on the other side of that, where decisions have been made proactively, we have seen a great impact in terms of the kinds of fires that we have and the number.

FLATOW: All right, let's go to this side of the auditorium, yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I'm a Northern Arizona native, and I've seen the forest change in my lifetime and have heard my dad and my grandpa talk about it. And my father was a hotshot, which is a wildland firefighter, and they'd send them out to clear the forest, to do some mechanical and brush burning.

And - but then they'd send them back in to plant three trees for every tree they cut down. And I was wondering if the 4FRI program put back some local controls so you didn't have to worry about this national regulation, that when you cut down a tree in the national forest, you've got to plant another one.

LATA: I'm not aware of any law that says you have to plant one. What we're doing is - there's a number of techniques, one is called evidence-based, where particularly in the areas where we're trying to restore grasslands in the savannah, we're looking at where we see big stumps or we see stump holes, and we know there were trees. And if it's an area that's encroached, we will leave - I'm not sure if it's one-to-one or two-to-one so that we can try and restore that historic structure. But we're not planting anything.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.

FLATOW: One question for you, Mary, while I have you there: How often, ideally, do forests need to burn? And Wally, you can jump in and talk about that. Is there an ideal number? Or...

LATA: Well, it varies with climate, and Wally, finish this thought. I can tell you what we're looking at right now. Based on talking to Paul and others, what we're writing in is a maintenance interval, and the intent of that is how long can a forest that starts out in a really good condition go and not start seeing really bad effects from fire when it does burn.

And a top number on that would be roughly 20. We would like to see, in our 4FRI area, a fire return interval of about 10 years. Historically, around here, we're looking at two to 21 depending on exactly where you're at in the cycle of weather.

FLATOW: Wally?

COVINGTON: Yeah, that's - Mary, you nailed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LATA: Thank God.

FLATOW: What - you talked about the fires and the canopy and burning very hot. What does a really hot-burning fire do to the ecosystem surrounding it?

COVINGTON: Yeah, so when we talk about fire-adapted forest, there are several kinds of fire-adapted forest. One is - we're all familiar, I think, from the fires of 1988 up in Yellowstone, those - the Lodgepole pine forest has experienced and co-evolved with crown fire.

So they have adaptations that allow them to respond, serotinous cones and others that we've talked about in the past, that allow them to thrive under crown fire conditions.

The frequent-fire forest, which Ponderosa pine and long leaf pine in the Southeast are kind of the characteristic forests of that type, have evolved under surface fires. And the surface fires sustain these forests. Many of the plants and animals besides the dominant trees require surface fires to thrive.

So in trying to do ecological restoration, what we try to do is to get as close to a self-regulating ecosystem as we can get. In this case, it would be with a fairly frequent fire regime.

Going in the opposite direction, though, is that these fires produce a lot of smoke, and the smoke does - is a health hazard. So that's where we look at what is the maximum interval, which we think might be around 20 years, where you could still sustain the basic functions of the ecosystem and yet manage the smoke from them.

FLATOW: Let's go - yes, here, and then I'll go there. Yes, sir.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. I'm a resident of Flagstaff, and I've got a third of an acre here in town. And when I'm sitting on my porch looking at the beautiful trees on my property, I've got two questions. One is: How many trees were on my property, say, 300 years ago before Europeans got here? And two: What's the maximum number of trees I should have on my property for safety?

SUMMERFELT: Well, let me answer that, if I could.

FLATOW: Go ahead, Paul.

SUMMERFELT: The first, and the response to the first question, the number of trees that existed on the property 300 years ago was, in most cases, probably in all likelihood, much less than what's there now. In terms of your second question of how may should you have, that's totally dependent upon the site and your property.

The best answer for that is given in the field, standing with you on your property, and so I would encourage you - you can call us or visit with me after this, and we will come and look at your property with you and talk about those questions.

FLATOW: There you go.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thanks.

COVINGTON: Just one additional point. When you look at - we've got studies throughout Western North America and in the Ponderosa pine type. And generally speaking, the densities before fire exclusion were somewhere between 50 and 40 or so trees per acre. Current densities are somewhere between 400 and several thousand trees per acre.

So when Paul says you've got - you've likely got more trees than were natural, than is the natural carrying capacity, you've got typically a whole lot more trees than can be sustained on the site.

FLATOW: We have a tweet here from Dodge(ph), who writes: Why do we not get forest fires in the Northeast like you guys are getting? Are our dry summers simply not dry enough? Paul?

SUMMERFELT: Well, I will say that the Northeast does have fire. Some of the most devastating fires we've had in this country have been in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. New York, Long Island, had a major fire about 15 years ago. So they do occur, but the reason they don't occur as often is the type of vegetation and the weather patterns.

It's much more humid, and you don't have the fuel buildup that we have in the West because material in the East typically decomposes fairly rapidly. It does not do that here.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's a little dry here.

SUMMERFELT: And it's drier.

FLATOW: I want to ask - don't be afraid to step up, to the audience here, and ask a question. Let me go to a question I've been wanting to ask - is it possible, Wally, after a big fire that a stream or a river system - I mean, I know that the soil is going to be affected. It - could it be totally changed, and what happens with the water in that forest area?

COVINGTON: Yeah. There's, you know, we see this time and again. The Schultz fire that you referred to here in Flagstaff is a classic example. That's a fire that burned last year about 15,000 acres, as you said. And what happens under these severe unnatural crown fires is you burn up and kill the vegetation. The roots die. There's nothing to hold the soil or to prevent flooding from occurring. So what happens with crown fire is there's, my old hydrologist at Yale used to call it the one-two punch.

And the one punch is you kill a lot of the trees and the animals on an area. The two punch is the soils start marching inexorably toward the sea. And as - without cover, then the impact of the rain as the root systems decay over years, not just immediately after the fire, but over years that soil starts moving down slope. And if you happen to have a human community below that, it's devastating. That's what we have going on right now in the Flagstaff area.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to this lady here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: OK. Thank you. And hello. And welcome, Ira, to Flagstaff.

FLATOW: Thank you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is for Wally or Mary. The question is, what effect, if any, does the bark beetle devastation contribute to these colossal fires?

COVINGTON: Well, I could just say to date that - this is Wally - so, obviously not Mary...

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COVINGTON: ...to date, we have had some substantial bark beetle outbreaks. But that's likely, the large landscape-scale bark beetle outbreaks in Ponderosa pine is likely five years down the road, maybe 10 years down the road. The first thing that happens with an overabundance of trees in this type is you get that shift from surface to crown fire and then larger and larger crown fires. As time marches on and the trees get weaker and weaker due to intense competition, then they're more subjected to bark beetles.

So it would be our anticipation that within the next 10 years, we'll see larger and larger bark beetle outbreaks. Now, if you think the Wallow Fire was bad with live trees on the site, just wait till you see something like that burn with dead trees on the site. We've seen that, and it's a much more devastating fire. It makes firefighting - the kind of stuff that Paul does - much, much more difficult. So it's likely to occur in the next 10 years or so. But one of the things about 4FRI is that ecological restoration treatments solve a whole host of problems for wildlife habitat degradation, watershed degradation, reduction of threats from insects and disease and also crown fire. Mary, did you have anything else?

LATA: No, you're saying most of it. But I'd want to add for those people who aren't aware, most of you would be, I know we have a lot of forestry students here. But the bark beetle has absolutely devastated parts of the Central Rockies, up in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado, the Black Hills where you literally have tens of thousands of acres of dead trees. They get the red needles on them. When the needles die at that point, they're particularly flammable.

Then, the needles fall off, and you just got the big dead downed trunks. And once those start to fall, the resistance to control is huge. Putting out those big trees is really hard. You can't get in there. You can't just walk through them. That's Paul's job then.

FLATOW: Well, let me remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Now, we've got one question here from the audience, yes?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was wondering how long does it take for a fire to destroy one tree.

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LATA: A few seconds.

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FLATOW: A few seconds.

SUMMERFELT: That's a good question.

FLATOW: That's a good question.

SUMMERFELT: Yeah. It is a good question because there's the initial killing of the tree that can occur when the needles are browned up when they're killed. But over longer periods of time, the fire at the base of the tree can smolder and kill a tree over a period of 10 or 12 years. So that is a very good question. Most people when they - if they see green in the canopy after the fire has passed through, say, everything is copacetic, you come back in four years' time, and there's a bunch of dead trees on the site very often.

FLATOW: That's a good question.

LATA: Very good question.

FLATOW: You have one for us also? Quickly.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: How many animals get killed by the wildfire?

COVINGTON: Another good question.

LATA: Another good question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LATA: I think that's a little hard to answer. Not many - not as many as you would think. If it's - when we say wildfire, I think we're all making the assumption that it's the bad fire versus the good fire. Even fires like the Wallow Fire and the Schultz Fire, there's parts of the areas that burned that it was ecologically a really good thing. In the fires that are of a historic nature, the low fires that aren't really dangerous and are good for the landscape, not many, probably very, very few.

FLATOW: Well, one last question. If you - I guess, it looks like the question about it, if you have all the money in the world and you want to study forests and fires, what do you need to know now? What would you like to know about the ecosystem or how they burn or whatever that you don't know, that you'd like to study? Wally? Mary? Paul? Is there a question there that...

COVINGTON: Yeah. So if we had all the money in the world, what we would do is probably landscape skill experiments. Back 30 or 40 years ago, when I started out in this, I thought a really big experiment was two acres. But the kind of - that was when we had small fires. Under current conditions, we can't just take results from a few acres and extrapolate that to the skill we need to operate now, which is hundreds of thousands of acres. So what I would do is start doing adaptive management experiments where we use the best available science, the strongest evidence to design ways to try to restore these forests. And then I would actually pay for monitoring and evaluation to find out whether or not that's working.

FLATOW: That's always a good thing to find out. Thank you. We've run out of time for this segment. Thank you all for joining us. Wally Covington is Regents' Professor of forest ecology, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. Mary Lata is a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Flagstaff. And Paul Summerfelt is the wildlife fire management officer for the city of Flagstaff. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

COVINGTON: Thank you.

FLATOW: And it's a pleasure meeting - some of you...

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FLATOW: ...I've spoken over the phone many years. And we get to actually see you in the flesh. We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about the Flagstaff Festival of Science. I know many of you are here, right, you're going to the Flagstaff Festival of Science.

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FLATOW: It's a festival that's been going on for over 20 years and finally maybe we'll tell people outside of Arizona, outside of Flagstaff, what goes on in the festival. And we're going to also talk about what the Mayans knew about 2012. Those things are not related. Well, maybe, they are. If you stay with us after this break, we'll be right back. Don't go away.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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