Photo Credit: Tour participants and Pine Flat community members discuss WUI challenges. Photo by Meredith Flannery

One the fire line upslope from from Pine Flat. (c) Meredith Flannery

On the fire line upslope from from Pine Flat. Photo Meredith Flannery

On June 13, the Southwest Fire Science Consortium (SWFSC) hosted a field trip to the site of the recent Slide Fire, which started in Slide Rock State Park outside of Sedona, Arizona and moved north and west across 21,227 acres. Burn severity (as determined by the Burned Area Emergency Response [BAER] team) ranged from low (48 percent) to high (14 percent) across the area, and the fire necessitated evacuation of several wildland-urban interface (WUI) communities in Oak Creek Canyon between Flagstaff and Sedona.

The field trip represented a critical learning opportunity for Forest Service personnel, members of the SWFSC, and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. Representatives from the local Forest Service fire team led the discussion, describing strategies employed at five different locations along the perimeter of the burn area. Additionally, BAER team members spoke about the findings and erosion control recommendations included in their recently released report, as well as implementation timelines and methods.

Attendees discussed a wide range of topics over the course of the day, including effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments, media issues associated with management of accidental fire for ecological benefit, and challenges of controlling fire in the WUI.

Fuel reduction treatments had been completed in less than 25 percent of the burn area, but fire crews observed significant effects. Thinning treatments in Slide Rock Park are at least partially credited for keeping the fire contained on the west side of the 89A road, which formed the eastern edge of the burn area. Similarly, treatments directly to the south of homes in Oak Creek Canyon drastically improved the ability of fire crews to protect structures. Further north, thinning treatments allowed for more effective backburning to contain the fire.

This burn area, as with many other high-value recreational areas in the region, is historically adapted to fire. However, due to fire suppression and highly effective campaigns of forest fire prevention, many people are not accustomed to thinking of fire as a potentially beneficial aspect of ecosystem management. Shifting media portrayal of forest fires away from the “scorched and destroyed” image will likely be critical in changing public perception of forest fires from a purely destructive force to a necessary management strategy. In order to address this, the Slide Fire team started Facebook and Flickr pages during the fire to disseminate information, maps and photographs. An impressive 10,000 “likes” on the Facebook page indicate that harnessing social media was an effective way of sharing important updates with the community.

This trip concluded at the Pine Flat community, which was in the path of the fire as it moved northward through Oak Creek Canyon. Grateful community residents wandered up to join the tour and talk about measures adopted among neighbors to reduce fuels around houses. There was still a significant amount of fuel around and abutting houses, however, and firefighters outlined how they had succeeded in protecting the community despite the many challenges posed by utility lines, heavy riparian zone vegetation and accessibility. Historically, the Sedona Fire Department has met with significant resistance talking with homeowners about fire protection measures around homes in the WUI, but the Department has developed a Structures Protection Program (SPP) detailing protocols and locations for protection of infrastructure and private property. Fire crews indicated that the SPP was very helpful in prioritizing actions during the fire.

Visiting the burn area so soon after the Slide Fire proved extremely informative, and built the foundation for some important discussions about how we can continually improve our ability to manage fire-adapted ecosystems and the communities within them. Using opportunities like this trip, FAC hubs and fire science consortia can integrate events and media efforts to maximize learning among academics, firefighters and resource managers, and transfer information to the public. Thanks to the SWFSC for organizing this excellent tour!

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