Forest restoration needed to prevent catastrophic wildfires in Arizona

Environmentalists say forest restoration is critical to combating the effects of a warming...
Environmentalists say forest restoration is critical to combating the effects of a warming climate.(AZ Family)
Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 8:49 AM MST
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PHOENIX, Ariz. (3TV/CBS 5) - An effort is underway to help prevent catastrophic wildfires from sparking in our Arizona national forests.

“We’ve seen a handful of our top 10 most severe wildfires, in the last decade alone. They’re becoming catastrophic fires, they are becoming more frequent, and they’re only going to get worse in the face of climate change,” Dan Sturla, habitat enhancement coordinator at the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

In the Tonto Basin, east of Payson, Arizona, lies an area that’s being targeted by environmental officials and the US Forest Service.

“(It’s) a race against time at this point, on the landscape. We haven’t done enough,” William Dudley, fuels specialist for Tonto National Forest.

Across roughly 1,800 acres, sits what’s been dubbed as the “Flying V & H Project.” This dense brush woodland is packed with non-native plants, which don’t provide a lot of nutritional value for the wildlife that live there. They also burn with more frequency, during the hottest months of the year.

Soon, crews will bring in excavators that are retrofitted to shred and grind trees and other shrubbery. One of the goals is to create a fire break for neighboring communities.

“Fire seasons aren’t getting any shorter. Areas that we can actually attempt to control a fire are important, before it hits a community, and allows us time to get around a fire,” said Dudley. “We’re losing multiple structures on every fire.”

“With the overstocking that’s there now, we can’t have these low-intensity fires, and what you get is something catastrophic that’s completely stand-replacing, and it doesn’t bounce back like it would under healthy historic conditions,” said Sturla.

Other critical goals include protecting powerlines that feed the Phoenix metro area, as well as improving watershed conditions.

“The water flows across those landscapes and makes its way down here to the Valley as part of our water supply,” said Rebecca Davidson, director of the Southwest Region for the National Forest Foundation.

Another important task is to create a more livable environment for wildlife.

“Basically, we’re trying to hit the reset button and restore natural processes,” said Sturla.

Further up the Mogollon Rim, just two miles southeast of Pine, sits an area called Cedar Bench. This was historically grassland. Overtime, because of fire suppression and cattle grazing, it was transformed to denser brush. Recently, this area underwent a restoration project aimed at returning it to its original state, and growth is already visible. Sunlight can now hit the ground more efficiently, water can slowly soak in, and thanks to rains from this past monsoon, fine grasses native to the area are starting to sprout up.

“It would be great if we could go up in a plane right now and look at the state and see how dense and overstocked our forests are,” said Sturla. “We need to get involved and thin these forests.” Prescribed burns are also being used to eliminate some of the fuel.

Environmentalists say these efforts are critical to combating the effects of our warming climate. Projects are being funded through tax dollars, nonprofit groups and other partnerships.

“Projects like that, even though they might be hundreds of miles away from the Phoenix metro area, are actually deeply connected to our quality of life here in the Valley,” said Davidson.

“Our call to action is now, where we need to get in, and we can make a difference,” said Sturla.

For more information on how to help with these forest restoration projects, click here and here.

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