Today's blazes are vastly different from the wildland fires of the past; even the species that make up the forest ecosystem have changed.

Doghair thicket of Ponderosa Pines near Flagstaff. Doghair thicket of Ponderosa Pines near Flagstaff.

Imagine the forest that the early settlers of the Colorado Plateau encountered — a relatively open savannah with clumps of ponderosa pines towering over a lush understory of bushes and 600 species of grasses. When a natural wildfire happens, it may burn down the grasses, some of the smaller trees and a bit more, but the overall impact is likely a healthy, regenerative one.

An overgrown branch of a ponderosa pine that is infected with dwarf-mistletoe. Kaibab National Forest, Southwest Forest Alliance plot, Williams, Ariz. July 9, 2001.

Now imagine today's forests of the Plateau. In many, the same ponderosa pines are so tightly bunched that they are choking one another for space and light. A massive "fuel load" of forest debris covers the forest floor. One spark can light up the fuel and create flames that race up to the treetops, then jump from one canopy to the next. A huge area of the forest can easily —and quickly— go up in smoke.

Small diameter ponderosa pine logs are being removed from the Fort Valley Experimental Forest. This thinning project was prescribed by the Ecological Restoration Institute.

More than a century of logging, cattle grazing and fire suppression have created a forest environment in which a catastrophic wildfire has become not the exception but the norm. Now what?

Deer at Radio Tower.
Deer at Radio Tower

Some would like to see the forest "treated" —through thinning, prescribed burns and so on— so it more closely resembles its former self. Others are concerned with the roles that plant and animal species —such as dwarf mistletoe and bark beetles— of the past, present and future play in the forest ecosystem. For the Hopi, the introduction of non-native plants and unnatural forest conditions has threatened cultural life, through the impact on migratory tropical birds with ceremonial significance. Others focus on the need to "treat" forests in the "wildland-urban interface," the place where the forest meets homes and communities.

Radio [Mt. Elden] Fire viewed from Flagstaff street, June 1977.
We came. We saw. We suppressed. It took little over a century for humans to dramatically alter fire's role in the forests of the Colorado Plateau. If there is a solution for returning fire to its proper place in the forest, many experts believe it will be many centuries in the making.
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