Coconino National Forest will carry out two prescribed burns this week to help reduce fuel accumulation near rural northern Arizona communities.

The burns are scheduled to take place May 1-5. One burn will take place about 15 miles south of Lake Mary. The other will take place about a mile west of Flagstaff.

Prescribed burns are carried out to help thin the forest and prevent larger wildfires from blowing up in the future, said Brady Smith, a spokesman for Coconino National Forest.

In areas that have had fire recently, the fires are considered “maintenance.” Fire burns up pine needles and other debris, reducing the likelihood of a major fire in the future.

“It kind of acts like a janitor, to clean up the forest,” Smith said.

Sometimes, areas that haven’t had fire for a while are also burned. Those burns can be smokier, and trickier to execute.

A number of conditions have to come together before a burn takes place, Smith said.

It has to be warm, but not too warm, dry, but not too dry, windy, but not too windy. There also have to be enough firefighters to monitor the blaze and keep it contained.

Research has shown that historically, small fires burned frequently in ponderosa forests. But for the more than a century, forest managers have tried to put out fire. Fuel has accumulated in Western forests as a result and bigger fires have become more common.

The conditions have been exasperated by climate change.

  • Raw Video: Sawmill Fire burns south of Tucson

    Raw Video: Sawmill Fire burns south of Tucson

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    Sawmill Fire burns along highway

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    Arizona officials continue to fight Sawmill Fire blaze

Not everyone is familiar with that history, or believes in prescribed burns, and sometimes the Forest Service hears from them.

“We have people that don’t understand the role that fire plays in the ecosystem. … We have people that understand that, but complain about the smoke impacts,” Smith said.

Sometimes, people don’t see news alerts about upcoming fires, or the signs that are posted telling people not to report the fire.

“Not everybody gets the word,” Smith said.

In layman’s terms, these fires are sometimes called “controlled burns,” but the Forest Service prefers the term prescribed burn. Occasionally, fires jump, or create more smoke than expected.

Last year, smoke from a fire failed to dissipate overnight, creating poor visibility on I-40, and was blamed for a number of accidents.

“That area was kind of like a bowl, almost,” Smith said.

Although prescribed burns require firefighters to execute, they are cheaper than battling big wildfires.

“It’s much more inexpensive to do prescribed burns,” Smith said.


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