It began in flames.
The catastrophe of the Big Burn swept through 3 million acres in the Northwest in 1910, consuming entire towns and killing 87 people – most of them firefighters.
It ended in flames 80 years later.
Lightning sparked the 24,000 Dude Fire on the face of the Mogollon Rim and a century-long accumulation of fuel erupted into a 30,000-foot-tall pillar of flame. When it collapsed, the fire consumed five firefighters and revealed the failure of an heroic, misguided, decades-long effort to banish fire from the forest.
In between the Big Burn and the Dude Fire lay an era of hope and hubris – heartrending courage melting into breathtaking miscalculation. This second installment of the wildfire series by the Payson Roundup and the White Mountain Independent will examine the roots of the catastrophe that now threatens all forested communities.
We now live in the long shadow of that era bookended by tragedy and drought. The decisions made in the obscuring smoke of the Big Burn now threaten the survival of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest and every community built in its midst – from Pine to Alpine and every point in between.
Forty years ago, Northern Arizona University forester Wally Covington began documenting the dismaying changes in the forest as a result of those policies, playing perhaps the single key role in documenting the debilitating, unnatural condition of millions of acres of forested land – including all of Rim Country and the White Mountains.
“When you look at the history of policy – not just forestry and natural resources, but policy in general – jingoism tends to run the day. You look at a complex problem and come up with a simple tag line. And that dominates sometimes for multiple generations.”
The broadly held determination to tame the wilderness and turn the forests into hard-working tree farms dominated the thinking of early 20th century foresters. The Big Burn turned fire into the enemy – not just because it devoured valuable timber, but because it could destroy the forest, he said.
“Fire was the enemy – it’s no coincidence they call the firefighting planes slurry ‘bombers.’ We had just fought World War I – so it’s almost like we were at war with fire – and people didn’t question it much. Today’s manifestation is that managed fire is the answer – and I’m seeing a lot of that same jingoistic thinking. Don’t tell us anything bad about managed fire because that’s the solution. That jingoistic thinking is really a problem,” whether indulged in by environmentalists, foresters or loggers, he concluded.
Back before we remade the world in our funhouse mirror image, it was different.
In 1890, the millions of acres of ponderosa pine forest in Rim Country and the White Mountains averaged perhaps 15-70 trees per acre on a forested savannah where the grass was belly-high to a horse. Fires burned harmlessly through every five or eight years, barely touching the 600-year-old “yellow belly” pines that dominated the landscape. Giants some 30, 40 or 60 inches in diameter, the great pines took root when the Hohokam still farmed their fields – centuries before the founding of a brash young nation on a distant coast in 1776.
When a wildfire burned through that landscape, it returned nutrients to the soil, thinned the saplings, cleaned a few years accumulation of debris and barely marked the big trees, according to an exhaustive reconstruction of that lost forest by researchers from the University of Arizona and elsewhere.
By the time the Dude Fire delivered its devastating lesson in 1990, tree densities had grown to 500 or 1,000 per acre. Most trees were 6-10 inches in diameter. Every acre of forest had 30 or 100 tons of dead wood and debris. Many areas hadn’t seen a wildfire in decades.