This year, the Flagstaff area has suffered two large and devastating wildfires in short succession: the April Tunnel Fire and then the Pipeline Fire that began nearly three weeks ago. Although the causes of both are still being investigated, it is widely believed that they were triggered by humans. While the pipeline fire was still smoldering in some areas, KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius visited Locket Meadow in the San Francisco Peaks Interior Basin. He spoke to Flagstaff District Ranger Matt McGrath about the areas that have burned and the changes that may be needed to reduce human-caused wildfires in one of the most sensitive and beloved areas of the region.
Ryan Heinsius: We’re just on the edge of the fire progress. Perhaps you can describe this fire perimeter that we are looking at.
Matt McGrath: Sure, so the pipeline fire started along the pipeline sort of near Schultz Pass, and the wind on Sunday and Monday blew it northeast. He then went up Weatherford Canyon. We’re sort of at the top of Weatherford Canyon, Weatherford comes to Doyle Saddle, between Doyle and Fremont Peak. And that’s where we can see that the fire kind of seeped here just a little bit into the Inner Basin. And the reason for that is that, one, the wind died down a bit and that allowed us to send five or six elite teams from Fremont Peak, either starting from the bottom or working from the top, and by digging the hand line adjacent to the fire with the support of helicopters. Also, the fire crept a little over the ridge above the campground here at Lockett Meadow, but then went into a patch of aspens, which is usually in this area of the world a cut – natural fire. And then also down to Lockett Meadow and once you get to the meadow there is a road and not a lot of flammable material here in the meadow.
RH: So what I heard from you and other officials and officials is that this fire was serious, it was a catastrophic fire for a lot of areas, but it could have been much worse. Maybe you can tell me what lessons could be learned from this fire.
MM: This fire started in an area that had been treated, the Chimney Springs area. But what we’re going to look at as we go along is how some of those fuel treatments impacted this fire. We must continue to do this restoration work in this area. We’ve done that in a lot of areas we saw it on the Museum Fire in 2019 where the behavior of the fire it didn’t stop when it got to areas that had been treated but the behavior of the fire was moderated a bit. So we need to keep doing it in the areas around the peaks, adjacent to the Kachina Peaks Wilderness as much as possible.
RH: So there is the ecological component, but what about the human component? It would have been started by a person. What could be the policy changes that could happen? What can the forest do to prevent the human element from this?
MM: This fire broke out in an area permanently closed to campfires. This shows you a little bit that there is no miracle solution to prevent these fires. You know, there were people there, there are lots of signs that say there is no campfire. You know, according to you, common sense would dictate that on a hot, dry day where we’ve been in persistent drought and the wind is whipping, you don’t start a fire. But one thing I’ve learned over many years as a resource manager is don’t rely on common sense. So I think what we’re going to look at going forward is working with our partners, the city, the county, and the community. How do we manage the frequentation of this space differently? So people are allowed to camp there, but if we just can’t rely on people not to make fires, do we have to close that area to the campsite? Maybe. I think that’s a conversation we’ll have this winter.
RH: In our discussions over the past few months, you’ve described a new normal for fire behavior, resource management, how climate change is impacting national forests and public lands. Does this new normal require a new policy?
MM: I think so. The fact that the tunnel fire occurred in mid-April. This fire is not expected to occur in mid-April. It is always windy here every spring. We know March, April, May is just something we deal with. But this fire should not occur at this time of year. So as we look to figure out what this new normal is, as things have changed every year and fires are becoming more and more resistant to control, what variables can we change? And that variable is how to reduce human ignitions. How do we offer the possibility to the inhabitants, to the people visiting to have another night of experience? Maybe it can’t be less than three or four miles from the Peaks. These windy spring months coupled with the drought, whatever happens with the weather, we have to do something differently and I think we’re going to start that conversation now and really plan to do something different in the near future.