FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The smell of wood-burning stoves seems to permeate this gateway to the Grand Canyon and pit stop on the legendary Route 66.
In this corner of the state, trees, wood and fire have an ever-evolving relationship. Surrounded by the Coconino National Forest, this northern Arizona town sat at the edge of the 2010 Schultz fire, which burned 15,000 acres.
While the Schultz fire visibly marked the landscape, the damage was relatively benign compared with the floods that came a month later. The fire had stripped the hills of trees and vegetation, and soil erosion left a smooth slope allowing the summer rains to push an avalanche of mud, rocks and other debris down into the community. A 12-year-old girl was killed. Millions of dollars in damage ensued. The vulnerability left by the fire was unearthed -- literally.
The fire, plus the floods that followed, had a net economic impact between $133 million and $147 million, according to a recent report. It was one in a series of megafires that have ignited Arizona over the past 25 years, including the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire and the 2011 Wallow fire, each around half a million acres. Since 1990, nearly 1.2 million acres of Arizona's timber has burned.
"A big fire used to be 1,000 acres," Dick Fleishman said as he walked alongside the fire-scarred boundaries of the Schultz fire on a snow-covered mountain range. "Now, it's in the tens of thousands."
Fleishman is the assistant team leader of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, called 4FRI. It is the largest forest stewardship project in the country. The plan is to restore 1 million acres over 20 years, from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border, by thinning small ponderosa pines -- the dominant species in the region -- and making the forest less dense. 4FRI covers the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache, Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests.
The Forest Service hired Pioneer Forest Products last May to cut and process the trees from the thinned forests. Pioneer will recycle the small-diameter timber into wood products -- for cabinetry, for example -- and wood laminate. Nearly 40 percent will be feedstock for a 30-million-gallon-per-year biodiesel plant run by Western Energy Solutions/Concord Blue USA. The processing plant in Winslow, Ariz., will employ about 500 people. The firm is still waiting to receive financing to begin operations in a budget-strained environment, said Marlin Johnson, a consultant for Pioneer.
The vision is essentially this: Thin the landscape so that the thick tangle of forest becomes "clumps" of trees, with open spaces in between.
Another key to restoration is to encourage the growth of diverse grasses, which burn quickly and minimize fire damage to the soil. The point, said Ed Smith, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy and a member of the coalition of stakeholders overseeing the massive 4FRI project, is not to stop the fire, but to drop it to the ground.
"It's inevitable," Smith said. "The forest is going to burn, so let's find a way to do this safely and effectively."
Bringing back the 'fire regime'
Fighting fires has become a growing financial burden for the Forest Service. Last year, the agency surpassed its fire suppression budget by $452 million, pulling the extra funds from other Forest Service programs.
The ultimate goal is to restore what ecologists called the fire regime, a cycle of fire that aids in the dispersal of seeds and the renewal of soil and makes other important contributions to the health of forests. For a century, land management practices across the country have suppressed that regime, leading to a tinder-packed forest that is vulnerable to bigger and much hotter fires.
The fire cycle for ponderosa pines is five to 10 years, in which a natural ignition sparks a low-intensity fire. Every 100 years or so, a major fire would sweep through and kill a stand of trees. Today, those 100-year events are happening more frequently. Schultz was a high-severity fire with severe soil impacts.