Wildfire Prevention Effort Aims To Protect Arizona Water

Published: Tuesday, June 28, 2016 - 5:03pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger- KJZZ)
A fire smoldered on the Cragin Reservoir's shore in June 2016.

Coconino National Forest – As the Valley continues to grow, making sure we have a reliable water supply becomes more and more important. That supply is threatened by wildfires. A coalition of groups including the Salt River Project, U.S. Forest Service and Payson is working to protect it.

On a recent day in a helicopter high above the Mogollon Rim north of Payson, smoke rose in the distance and you could smell it from the cockpit.

“We can see there are a couple fires burning up here," said Ron Klawitter, a water strategy analyst with SRP.

The Reservoir Fire was nearly contained and smoldered on the steep shores of the 64,000 acre C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

“But really, these are completely dependent on weather patterns and if we have some hot, dry periods and the wind picks up, we can see these fires get out of hand really quickly,” Klawitter said.

An uncontrolled fire here is a worst-case scenario.

The C.C. Cragin watershed is one of seven  reservoirs SRP maintains. It’s a key source of water for the town of Payson, many communities in Gila County and, down the Verde River, for the Valley.

If a wildfire took hold here, it could have irreversible consequences. There’s a visible area of scorched earth left from the 1990 Dude Fire.

“You’re seeing that the forest – there’s not much of a forest left,” Klawitter said.

Pollution risk in the wake of fires

After wildfire season hits in June, the monsoons come and massive amounts of soil, ash and debris wash away.

“Some areas that may have been ponderosa pine originally, and then burn at a high intensity,”  Klawitter said. “You may never see ponderosa pine there again because they’re just not able to re-establish because the soils that they grow in are washed away and you see nothing but exposed rock.”

A wildfire on the slopes of a watershed like Cragin could clog the reservoir with sand and silt and create an expensive clean-up project and a seriously damaged water supply.

“It’s extremely expensive to kind of just sit back and wait and see what happens,” Klawitter said.

It’s a looming problem and SRP has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, the Bureau of Reclamation and the town of Payson to address it.

They created the Cragin Watershed Protection Project,  a multi-million dollar project to thin the overgrown forest surrounding the reservoir and protect it from a catastrophic fire.

The rare collaboration has been fast-tracked through a federal approval process, but it likely won’t begin until late 2017.

“So until then, is it just crossing your fingers? It really is,” Klawitter said.

A family forest-thinning effort

About 70 miles northwest outside of Flagstaff, James Perkins’ crew is hard at work on a thinning project on state land.

“It’s all family,” Perkins said.  “We got three generation of Perkins here, that’s my son, that’s my grandson, so I got three grandsons out here and two sons.”

It’s a small, 640 acre job designed to thin the forest around the city to give firefighters a barrier if a wildfire were to spread there. Today, the Perkins are out in force cutting down tree after tree in the forest near Flagstaff, shaving off their branches and loading them onto heavy duty trucks to ship out.

“We average 10 acres a day,” Perkins said.

Henry Provencio with the U.S. Forest Service said thinning projects are an essential part of restoring the overgrown forests of northern Arizona to health.

“We know, living in the southwest, that these forests were much more open,”  Provencio said.

He coordinates the government’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative which is aiming to thin 1 million acres of forest in about a 2.4 million acre area stretching across the region.

We might think of a thick forest and lush and beautiful, he said, but they’re sick.

“Lots of small trees, growing in a much tighter space, competing with each other for resources,”  Provencio said. “You can’t see very far into the forest.”

Perkins’ crew doesn’t cut down the older, bigger pine trees. He said  many of those were cut down decades ago.

“Now, you got these smaller trees,” Perkins said. “if you look out there you can see a 4-inch tree and then right over here you can see a 16-inch tree, they’re the same age.”

After a century of suppressing natural, low-burning forest fires, the forests are overgrown, and trees are left competing for water and light.

“Like fish in a barrel,” Perkins said. “Like you put too many fish in a barrel, their heads are big and their bodies are small because they’re too crowded.”

As we fly over the lush forests surrounding the C.C. Cragin Reservoir,  Klawitter sees only risk.

“The dense forest is beautiful, but when I look at it, it really gives me anxiety because I know what might happen if a fire starts in that area,” Klawitter said.

He’s hoping, in a few more years, when this forest has been thinned that anxiety will be gone.

“When we see a fire start, we’re not all gonna be sitting on the edge of our seats biting our nails worried,” Klawitter said.

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