September October 2005




Land Lessons

By Mary Stuever

Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation Coordinator
for the White Mountain Apache Tribe

Years ago when some of my pueblo friends would tell me stories, they would advise me that there was a season - a specific time of year - when I could share these stories with others, and the rest of the year, when thunder might be listening, we would keep these stories safely snug in our hearts.

Now that it has been raining for several weeks, and it seems clear the monsoon season is well entrenched, and leaders at Fire Management are no longer staffing large weekend patrols to prevent the next "Big One," I feel I can safely tell another kind of story. This one is about fire.

I work on the largest burn that has occured un the South-west Region. The Rodeo complex started in mid-June of 2002 on the lands of my employer, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, in East-central Arizona. The two fires were intentially started by two people, for varying purposed that makes no sense to the rest of us. For the most part, these two fires, which burned together over 469,000 acres, brought vast landscape disturbances - Okay I admit the word: destruction - to much of this region.

Within the fire perimeter on the tribal lands, roughly 120,000 acres of roughly 276,000 acres of tribal lands involved, experienced low fire severity, and admittedly, may have even benefited from the fire. When I first came to this project I was told that "anywhere" I saw green trees, there had been some kind of forest management activity in the areas history. Being a skeptic, I have carried my "management activit map" with me rather regularly in the burn area to test this theory.

Limestone Fire Tower is a good place for the story to start unfolding. Jutting up on a ridge several miles from the reservation / national forest boundary, the fire tower not only serves to host a spotter who cries alarm when wild fires start, but over the years, Limestone Camp has hosted crews of firefighters, who when not fighting fires, worked diligently at thinning the forest. A large prescribed fire was conducted here a year before the big burn, and in the 80's much of the area was thinned. Around the tower where most of these activities occured, there is a forest of tall, green pines, and rich carpet of grasses, wildflowers and shrubs.

From the lookout tower, more lessons can be learned. To the northwest along the reservation boundary there are large islands of green, and there patterns on the landscape match te thinning and prescribed burning project maps. Directly to the west and southwest there is another anomaly to the treeless eroded slopes that dominate the burn. Here trees occur in clumps, sometimes isolated, sometimes not, and that area deserves closer inspection.

Last week I took a group of Navajo middle school students there to observe these lessons. In a region known as White Springs we found some beautiful stands of large, yellow bark pine that had missed being destroyed, as well as several other canyons, ridges, and slopes that seem to have escaped the wrath of flames. Pulling out the management map we learne that flames were really a major part of the story. The Charrizo Fire of 1971 had burned much of the aresa and timber salvage harvests followed in the years after that fire. A portion of that area had burned again during the White Spring Fire of 1996. The resulting mottled mosaic of forest now represents an area that has experience three major wildfires in the past quarter-century.

There are other areas of reservation lands within the Rodeo-Chediski burn that I am happy I do not know well. On the map, the layers of timber sales, thinning projects, and prescribed fire in the Chuckbox and Bull Flat areas are tangled and complex, but happily we will not be adding rehabilitation projects to the management history. Though the fire did not burn through these areas in 2002, the "damage" is minor and these areas do not require additional erosion control or reforestation assistance from my program. The story of this land will be told by others as graduating students from a neighboring university tease apart the evidence to see how forest management impacts fire severity.

The stories this land tells are complex and fascinating, with the major lesson being about the need for extreme care with ignition sources during certain times of the year. On the reservation this year, we take a deep sigh of relief that, at least temporarily, knocking on wood, we have escpaed this fire season without having another major wildfire. As the rain pours down, and access restrictions are lifted throughout the region, it is time once again to tell the other "fire" stories; the stories, that if heeded, one day might guide us back to living within a healthy forest landscape.


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This page was last updated on Wednesday, November 09, 2005