Travis Noth will never forget the night he watched the Wallow Fire top South Mountain and head toward his hometown.

Noth is an Alpine native, and the soft-spoken chief of the Alpine Fire Department.

A big team of firefighters from across the state and across the country was there to help his crew protect the town on June 3, 2011, as a monster crown fire approached from the south.

The fire was so powerful it continued burning with the same intensity at night as it did during the day, and raced down mountains instead of up them — two things ordinary wildfires don’t do.

He said it’s hard to describe the feelings he had that night, one of the toughest of his life.

The lurid orange flames, more than 100 feet high, illuminated the dark, smoky sky.

“The night it hit town, we watched that fire coming down South Mountain, and all of a sudden you watched the flames drop from the treetops to the ground … the fire is blowing into town, then it just checked up, it was on the ground,” Noth said.

The fire had hit the half-mile wide thinned forest treatment area that forms a ring around Alpine. Most of the treatments had been conducted as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project during the years 2004-2007.

Nobody knew the treatments would prove so effective against a fire of the magnitude of the half-million-acre Wallow Fire, but it passed the ultimate test. The wall of flame that had crossed the ridge on South Mountain did not consume the town. In fact, only one structure in town burned down as a result of the fire.

Springerville District silviculturist Monica Boehning helped design the thinning treatments used around Alpine. “Those treatments were for three things: the prevention of a crown fire, to keep a ground fire from running off private land into the forest, and to create space for firefighters to protect the town,” she said

“We have lots of documentation — research papers, photographs, eyewitness accounts — that our WUI treatments did indeed make a big difference in saving the town of Alpine,” Boehning said.

Focus on the Wildland Urban Interface

The White Mountain Stewardship Project, which began in 2004 and ran for 10 years, was the largest, longest-running forest thinning project ever undertaken at that time and thinned 71,000 acres during its 10-year lifespan, removing nearly two million tons of overgrowth. From the beginning, the project was focused on areas in the Wildland Urban Interface — or WUI (pronounced woo-ee) where homes and businesses are sprinkled into areas surrounded by national forest lands.

While experts recognized that thinning treatments were needed across the forest, the WUI areas held a particular problem. Not only were they close to developed areas, they were even more overgrown than other places in the forest. Boehning said that people didn’t want logging next to their homes and cabins because it disturbed the peace and quiet, and they didn’t like to see the unsightly look of the land immediately after logging.

The Forest Service heeded their complaints. It was this ‘not-in my backyard’ sentiment that led to very thick growth in areas of the WUI. “Cumulatively, over time, these areas within a mile to a half-mile from private land got thicker and thicker,” Boehning said.

The Wallow Fire approached Hannagan Meadow with roiling billows of smoke - photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

Five thinning treatments conducted in areas around Alpine from 2001 through 2007 thinned a total of about 4,600 acres around the town before the Wallow Fire arrived. Boehning said she spent weekends visiting with residents to help respond to people’s concerns.

“We had a 90 percent optimism that we could reduce the severity of significant wildfire damage,” Boehning wrote.

In fact, Boehning can look at a burn severity rating map of the region south of Alpine and pick out the areas where logging occurred prior to the fire, because those areas were not ravaged by the Wallow. Thinning protects forests, too, she says.

Travis Noth has no doubts. After the fire hit the thinned treatment, he and other firefighters put out spot fires and ground fires, something they could safely accomplish because of the treatment zone.

“I’m thoroughly convinced after watching it firsthand, there’s no way the houses on the south side of town would have survived without it,” he said.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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