Fire a fact of life in Southwest

Fire is a fact of life in the Southwest. And for ecosystems like that in northern Arizona's ponderosa pine forests, fire is a necessity.

Before over a century of fire suppression changed the landscape, low-intensity lightning-caused fires burned through an area every three to seven years. They served to keep the forest in balance by thinning trees and reducing competition, clearing grasses to make room for new crop and breaking down nutrients that return to the soil. They also prevent a build-up of fuels on the forest floor.

Government agency fire managers here seek to help restore that balance through fire management tools that include fires that are intentionally set (prescribed burns) and fires that start naturally and are allowed to burn (wildland use fire).

In both cases, a low-intensity creeping ground fire is the goal as it will burn grasses, forest debris and small trees but leave the larger trees unharmed.

Fire management policy on public lands calls for suppression of all human-caused fires as well as those that start naturally in conditions that will not bring great benefit. In dry, windy conditions, a wildfire can easily become a high-intensity conflagration that can cause heavy mortality even among mature trees and spread out of control threatening life and property.

March and April generally offer good conditions for prescribed burning projects.

Starting in May and until the summer monsoon rains saturate the forest, fire danger usually remains in the upper categories, leading government land management agencies to enact restrictions on open flame and other activity in the backcountry. In extreme conditions, areas may be completely closed.

In addition to the National Forest and NPS-administered lands, restrictions are also in effect on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, state of Arizona and Coconino County. Campers are responsible for knowing fire restrictions in their area and those who carelessly spark a blaze can be liable to reimburse the agencies that have to fight it.

For forest conditions: 928-635-4061; in the park: 928-638-7888. Across the Southwest, visit http://gacc.nifc.gov/swcc or www.azfireinfo.com.

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