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Prescribed Burns: A Necessary Evil

The Wallow Fire burned 538,000 acres in Arizona and parts of Western New Mexico in late spring of 2011.
Courtesy of the USFS
The Wallow Fire burned 538,000 acres in Arizona and parts of Western New Mexico in late spring of 2011.

My husband, our two daughters and I have been coughing for weeks now. Initially I thought it was a cold the girls brought home from school. But it finally occurred to me when I woke up with a scratchy throat that it’s probably not a bug, but a burn. It’s prescribed fire season in northern Arizona.

The summer winds have died down and the ground isn’t too dry. So forest managers are lighting controlled burns all around Flagstaff to maintain fire’s natural role in the ecosystem. I understand that’s the reason. And I understand it’s critical in order to prevent larger catastrophic fires, but I don’t enjoy the smoke and what it does to my girls’ little lungs.

But if we are going to stay in Flagstaff -- and it looks like we are -- we had better get used to it.

The Four Forests Restoration Institute -- the largest forest thinning effort of its kind -- means a lot more burns smoke, in addition to logging trucks kicking up dust.

I thought Christopher Joyce said it best when he called our forests “green timebombs” in his series for NPR.

For decades the Forest Service put out fires as soon as they started. That, along with overgrazing and now warming temperatures, means megafires like the Wallow Fire.

Some forests near our house have as many as 900 trees per acre. When I first moved here I thought, 'how lovely, these lush forests.' But I’ve since learned dense forests are bad. Historically they had more like 40 trees an acre.

I remember driving through Oak Creek Canyon a few months after moving here admiring the Ponderosa pine stands against the red rock. And my friend who was with me said, “just look at that tinderbox. One lit cigarette and Flagstaff goes up in flames.”

And just a few years later the Brins Fire scorched thousands of acres in the canyon and came dangerously close to homes, and later the Schultz Fire blew up in people’s backyards in a community northeast of Flagstaff. And I nowreport on people losing their homes to devastating megafires with more and more frequency.

So when my eyes water and I start coughing and tell my girls to come in from playing outside, I remind myself the alternative is much worse.