In the woods east of Tusayan, chainsaws can be heard in the distance. During a time of drought and with summer fast approaching, it’s a sweet sound to many folks in the small, gateway community to Grand Canyon National Park.
Brian Schexnayder, a seasonal employee for Kaibab National Forest, cuts down a small-diameter tree as part of a thinning project east of Tusayan.
Rick Stahn, Tusayan District ranger for Kaibab National Forest, said the project is intended to reduce forest fuels and create a defensible space between the forest and the community. If catastrophic wildfire did light up the area, it would be much more manageable.
“It’s a wildland-urban interface project and involves fuels reduction to protect the community,” Stahn said. “We have a target of 250 acres this year. So far, we’ve completed about 60 acres.”
The district’s own firefighting crew is handling the work, thinning out the area when time allows. On Wednesday morning last week, just two workers were on site in a spot beyond the Forest Service’s “bone yard” area, but it was easy to see progress was being made.
Although such work is oftentimes contracted out, Stahn said he wanted to use his own staff on this project.
“We like to do our own stuff near the corridor ourselves,” Stahn said. “We’re concerned with visuals and when working with a contractor, it’s difficult to specify those things.”
Trees up to about 8 inches in diameter are being thinned out along with various other fire hazards. Much of the work centers around the old-growth yellow pine trees, clearing out areas under the branch drop line. Eliminating routes for a fire is important in the process. That way, fuel laddering can be eliminated.
Another goal is to increase the lifespan of such trees. Juniper, pinyon and ponderosa pine have also been thinned out.
The slash piles created by the thinning project are being kept to a maximum height of two feet, or just below knee level. A few years down the road, Stahn said a broadcast burn, or prescribed burn, will follow to eliminate other materials.
Stahn said some locals have taken advantage of the availability of fire wood and others are welcome. Those who wish to pick up wood must obtain a free-use permit at the Tusayan office, currently located in the old rock house. The Forest Service also plans to utilize some of the wood for poles.
The project is all part of a five-year plan to deal with fire hazards in the forest around Tusayan. The area runs from the park boundary in the Rowe Well area, follows the railroad tracks toward the airport, then up Forest Road 306 and on up to Tusayan.
Stahn said a wildland fire in the Rowe Well area could create a “straight shot into the park” and the agencies are working together. A prescribed burn could happen there in the fall of 2004 if funding becomes available.
Around nine seasonal employees joined the Tusayan firefighting staff a few weeks ago and have been helping with the project east of town.