Heavy winds started the biggest wildfire in Arizona history in June 2011. Once burning, the Wallow Fire grew, pushed by the winds, across hillsides and into Valleys in eastern Arizona’s high country. It went on like that for weeks.

But the fire behaved differently when it reached the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. It flickered in grass and duff between stout ponderosas, laid down and died. Firefighters had an easier time of it. 

That’s because Fort Apache, through sound management and a quirk in history, has large areas of healthy ponderosa pine forest. After the fire, the tribe’s forest manager at the time, Jonathan Brooks, could point to areas where the Wallow Fire struck. You could barely tell there had been a fire.

“You may have a fire here, but it’s not going to be hundreds of thousands of acres,” Brooks said during a tour of the burn area after the fire.

“It’s management that creates these types of forests,” he said. “This forest is resilient to large wildfires, even in the worst conditions.”

Foresters everywhere have a variety of challenges with climate change, bark beetles, budgets and drought, and not all of the reservation is immune to wildfire because not all areas have been treated.

But a lot of areas have been because Fort Apache’s work with prescribed burns goes back decades.

In the 1960s, a new land management technique — prescribed burns — gained favor among foresters, Stephen J. Pyne writes in “Fire in America.” It was “the fire program at Fort Apache that was seen as an exemplar for the management of ponderosa pine forests throughout the West.”

Even with a program that goes back decades, Brooks said that “when it is such a big fire, you do have that sense of helplessness.”

Brooks, who has since left the department, said he spent most of that month working out of his vehicle, which hit an elk.

“I didn’t like that vehicle anyway,” Brooks said.


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