Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest fire managers will not be doing prescribed burns in the South Rim area anytime soon, but the agencies might allow a natural ignition fire to burn if the conditions are just right.
Kaibab National Forest’s Dave Mills points out some work planned for the Tusayan area later this year.
Craig Letz, GCNP fire management staffer, said that with area receiving a lot of moisture this spring, brush and grass have been growing.
“With that, there’s a pretty good potential to manage a natural ignition fire,” Letz said. “If we have the right conditions, we can manage that for resource benefits. I think there’s a pretty good potential for that this year.”
In particular, Letz said the west end of the park could use a managed fire if an opportunity came along.
“If the conditions are right, it’s possible,” GCNP fire and aviation branch chief Dan Oltrogge said about natural starts. “Historically, most of those are on the North Rim.”
Kaibab National Forest could go the same route, using the same type of parameters when deciding whether to allow a natural fire to burn.
“If the conditions are right, we might use fire-use,” Tusayan District ranger Rick Stahn said Wednesday during a smoke management open house. “If it exceeds certain thresholds, we would put them out.”
Both the NPS and Forest Service have a sort of checklist when making decisions about fire use. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality also has a say in the matter.
When it comes to prescribed burns, the area will likely be into monsoon season before such activity occurs.
“We may try to burn some sagebrush in late June, early July. At that point, we may wait until we get good monsoons,” Kaibab fire manager Dave Mills said. “It will probably be July or August before we do anything.”
Around the state, the official start of “fire season” was Friday and some have targeted the Grand Canyon area as a potential wildfire risk. But there has been an aggressive prescribed burning program in place over past years, something that will have an impact on severity.
“We need to burn, it’s healing for the forest,” Stahn said. “We try to have the lowest (smoke) impacts on the community as we can. We’ve had very few complaints from the community.”
In the park, prescribed burning will not occur until this fall.
“Probably the earliest on the South Rim would be this fall,” Oltrogge said. “We have issues with U.S. Fish and Wildlife consultants going on. Until we complete that, we can’t initiate anything.”
Talks between Fish and Wildlife and the NPS involve fire impacts on endangered species, one of the most notorious being the Mexican spotted owl.
“We’re still in the planning process ... but we have three big projects we’re trying to accomplish,” Letz said.
Two of the three are scheduled for the North Rim in areas surrounded by blackened ground and trees. Letz said there will be 2,000 acres to burn in the Walhalla and Outlet areas. On the South Rim, the park is planning to go back into the Topeka burn unit, which is directly adjacent to Grand Canyon Village.
“We’ve burned that twice in the last 12 years,” Letz said. “This would be a third entry burn. It was last burned in 1998.”
Letz said the South Rim burn will not occur before September and it could be October before that materializes.
“There’s a lot less fuel accumulation on the ground, so smoke impacts will be reduced,” Letz said. “But being this close to the village, there will be some smoke impacts. We’ll look for the right weather conditions.”
Letz said the park is working with the Forest Service about taking such a prescribed fire beyond the boundary.
Kaibab National Forest plans to begin a prescribed burn in the North Kaibab district in the coming days. The Forest Service’s Doug Ottosen said 1,800 acres will be burned in the Holy Hollow unit.
“The North Kaibab doesn’t have a lot of the wildland-urban interface issues like over here,” Ottosen said about the timing. “This is focused on protecting the timber basin and resources.”
Aerial ignition will be used to get the fire going, utilizing a NPS helicopter. That type of ignition is preferred by the ADEQ, Ottosen said, because it’s quick.
The North Rim is much wetter than the South Rim. For example, Ottosen said stock tanks have been overflowing and it will probably be two to four weeks before it dries out.
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