For Payson and Pleasant Valley Districts Head Ranger Debbie Cress, the shift in policy has already affected how the Forest Service fights fires.
“When I became an agency administrator, I became a person who makes the decision when a fire starts,” she said. “I read a lot of scientific papers on fire science. I asked the Rocky Mountain Research Station about the latest around fire behavior. I hang out with smart fire people.”
She also uploads as much information as she can into the Wildland Fire Decision Support System. Cress said it’s fondly called, woof-duss, developed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.
WFDSS allows her to build maps of an area that identify communities, watersheds, roads, trails, protected habitat, fuel conditions, weather, terrain and fire history.
“WFDSS … guides us through a risk and complexity analysis,” she said.
Prepare during down time
During the winter, Cress will bring the Rocky Mountain Research Station to the Tonto to speak with personnel. “They talked not only about people and communities, but power lines and other values.”
Last winter, Hotshot crews cleared vegetation along fire breaks.
“To date, Forest Service fire managers have treated over 61,295 acres of fuels around Rim Country communities, from Payson, Pine and Strawberry across to Colcord Estates and everything in between.”
Fire managers turn to WFDSS when a blaze like the Highline Fire on the face of the Mogollon Rim breaks out. “With the Highline Fire, fuel conditions were very dry, temperatures were very hot, and we had significant values at risk with nearby communities,” she said. “It was also under similar conditions as the Dude Fire, which burned in the same location in 1990 and took the lives of six firefighters.
Cress noted, “We have two kinds of fire, planned fires and unplanned fires. Our end state is always going to be suppression.”
However, the mandate to ‘conserve the land’ has motivated the Forest Service to maintain a low-intensity fire in favorable conditions to remove brush.
Cress used the Fulton and Juniper as examples of such useful fires.
The Juniper Fire started as a lightning strike in a remote area south of Young, said Cress. “There had been very few wildfires in the Sierra Ancha range for many years and we knew fuel loading was high,” she said. “The steep terrain and lack of roads made it unsafe to put firefighters in to directly suppress the fire, so we pulled out maps and looked at where we could safely put people along major roads where we could get them out safely and quickly.”
Command then drew a perimeter line and burned it out using incendiary balls dropped from a helicopter. Firefighters primarily dropped the incendiary balls on tops of ridges to move the fire downslope rather than waiting for the fire to run uphill, which increases its severity.
“We knew from gathering data before the fire that fuel moistures were high and temperatures were unseasonably mild, which would allow the fire intensity to stay more moderate,” said Cress.
Firefighters protected the few homes in the area by clearing fire breaks. They also suppressed edges of the fire so they did not become too hot and damage soil.
As temperatures rose, however, firefighters shifted tactics to holding and monitoring the existing fire rather than burning out areas.
The Fulton Fire started at the end of the monsoon season with a lightning strike on the face of the Mogollon Rim.
“We knew fuel moistures were high and temperatures would be mild,” said Cress.
The weather and fuel conditions were good enough to support a low-intensity fire, which could remove the large amounts of dead material on the ground.
“We identified places on the ground where we knew we could safely put firefighters to hold the line, mainly along existing roads at the top of the Rim … and around the communities of Colcord Estates and Ponderosa Springs,” said Cress.
They used incendiary balls to encourage the fire to move downslope.
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