Alder Prescribed Fire Creates a Resilient Landscape

Woods Fire

Prescribed burning is key to provide forest restoration, ensure ecosystem health, and reduce wildfire hazard to provide for firefighter and public safety.


A wildfire was detected by a Forest Service lookout on Friday, May 11, 2018 at approximately 2:00 p.m. near Forest Road 195 just northwest of Woods Canyon Lake on the Black Mesa Ranger District.  A Red Flag Warning had been forecast for that day and the next from 11:00 through 20:00 and was fairly accurate with RH’s dipping into the single digits and wind gusts exceeding 30-40 mph quite often with constant winds of 10-20 mph throughout the day.  The fire started in a mechanical thinning/logging area and quickly spread through logging slash and cut timber piled on the ground, became wind driven and pushed through mature and immature stands of Ponderosa Pine with no problem.  Vegetation in the area consisted mainly of a Ponderosa Pine type forest with a grass understory on the flatter terrain and southern slopes mixed with Gambel Oak.  The drainages and northern slopes consisted of a dry mixed conifer type with an inter-mix of some small aspen stands.

A Coconino County Sheriff’s Deputy arrived on scene first and reported that within the first 20 minutes before fire crews arrived, the fire rapidly grew from about half an acre to over 20 acres, was growing rapidly and torching trees.  

light initial fire in wooded grassy area

Figure 1: Initial fire when Sheriff's Deputy Arrived

Fire 20 minutes after arrival of Sheriff’s Deputy and Fire resources starting to arrive on

Figure 2: Fire 20 minutes after arrival of Sheriff’s Deputy and Fire resources starting to arrive on scene.

Knowing the fire was directly to the southwest of the recent 1,335 acre Rim Lakes RX-Alder Burn Unit from the previous fall, the IC and Battalion (AFMO) for the district decided that it would be best to concentrate efforts by anchoring and flanking the fire to steer it towards the middle of the previous prescribed burn. This would hopefully slow the progression at the head of the fire with the high winds.  Two Interagency Hotshot Crews, two Type 2 dozers, an IA hand crew, and six engines were able to flank the fire into the prescribed burn area.  No aerial resources such as helicopters or air tankers were able to help with the suppression efforts due to the high winds.

The local AFMO scouted the area in front of the head of the fire to see how the fire was going to push through prescribed burn area and to see how far spots were being thrown out in front of the fire. Several spot fires were observed out to a quarter of a mile in front of the fire, but would go out on their own or with very little effort from ground resources due to the lack of ground and surface fuels in the area.  The AFMO stated that “as the head of the fire began to torch several trees coming out of the drainage it ran into the Alder Burn and moved into it with very high intensity.  But as the fire moved just a quarter of an acre into the prescribed burn area and away from the immediate heated area with very little ground fuels below it, the fire immediately fell to the ground. The fire only smoldered around for a little while before hand crews and a dozer were able to line the main part of the head with very little effort.” 

Area where the head of the Woods Fire torched a 1 1/2 acre section of timber on the right and ran in

Figure 3: Area where the head of the Woods Fire torched a 1 1/2 acre section of timber on the right and ran into the Alder Burn on the left and only burned 1/4 to 1/2 an acre into it before falling to the ground.

Spot fire activity just to the north of where the Woods Fire crossed into the Alder Burn Unit.

Figure 4:  Spot fire activity just to the north of where the Woods Fire crossed into the Alder Burn Unit.

Crews on scene during the following day experienced Red Flag conditions with weather again, but were able to hold the fire within the containment lines and spot fires that had gone into the Alder Burn Unit.  They continued with mop-up operations for two more shifts and then transferred command from the Type 3 IC back to a Type 4 incident on Monday the 14th.

Fire Adaptive Ecosystems through Resilient Landscapes:

The previous prescribed fire directly led to the reduced fuel loadings of this fast moving wildfire.  The Apache-Sitgreaves NF’s fuel treatments were key in safe and effective response to the Woods Fire.  A full suppression strategy was used due to high fire danger ratings, timing of year, and the source of ignition. 

Woods Fire ran into the Alder Burn Unit (in orange) and almost stopped on its own

Figure 5: Woods Fire (in red) ran into the Alder Burn Unit (in orange) and almost stopped on its own with forward progression.

Although no structures were in immediate danger of the path of this fire, an active timber sale was in the immediate area.  Three other timber sale areas that surrounded the fire to the south, east, and north.  These sales are expected to bring several thousand dollars’ worth of revenue to the local economy.  Six miles to the north, the Arizona Public Service (APS) power company has a single KV Powerline that supplies a lot of electricity to the Phoenix Metropolitan area.  Seven miles to the east, the Arizona Public Service power company and Salt River Project (SRP) power company have a dual KV Powerline that also supplies power to the major Phoenix Metropolitan area.  If fire had moved through these powerlines with record breaking heat, high winds, and high fire danger, several million dollars could have been lost per hour if the smoke column or fire had caused power outages. Several million people could have been without major electric power supplying basic home and air conditioning needs.

Chevelon Canyon, which is located about 4 miles to the east of the fire, has several Threatened and Forest Service Sensitive species such as the bald eagle, Mexican spotted owl, northern goshawk, and peregrine falcon.  This canyon has a fairly dense stand of ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer with several steep side drainages and would have been easily severely burned if the fire had been able to make a substantial run.  The Tinder Fire made a run on the Coconino National Forest just a week and a half prior just 25 miles to the northwest with the same weather, fuels, and topography conditions. In one burning period, the Tinder Fire made a seven mile run that burned in a northerly direction causing very substantial resource and property damage.  Recreationists hike the canyons in and around Chevelon Canyon and fish at the Chevelon Lake area which is approximately 11 miles to the north/northeast of the fire area.  Arizona Game and Fish has designated the lake as a blue ribbon fishery because management is designed to produce large trout. Valuable time would have been needed to look for hikers and potentially evacuate them. 

The Alder Prescribed Fire moved the vegetation within the area closer to the desired conditions of a fire resilient landscape and towards the Potential Natural Vegetation Types (PNVT’s) described within the forests’ Land Management Plan. This proved very beneficial to use safe, direct suppression tactics once the Woods Fire was flanked into the Alder Burn Unit.

The Black Mesa RD and Apache-Sitgreaves NF’s fuels and timber programs are working diligently to help reduce wildfire risk and create fire adapted communities. The fuels program along with the management of the Woods Fire clearly demonstrated a success meeting goals to produce resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, and a safe, effective wildfire response.

Prepared by: Justin Gabler-Black Mesa RD Fuels AFMO