FLAGSTAFF — Andrew J. Sánchez Meador is sitting at an outdoor café in Flagstaff on a late morning in mid-July when his phone sings out an alarm tone: flash-flood alert.

The immediate threat may be water, but he knows the cause is from another element: fire.

Sánchez Meador is the executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. He studies forest health and how humans can live in and restore forest ecosystems by, among other things, utilizing and responding to fire.

Next to Sánchez Meador’s feet, a sun-bleached stack of sandbags slouch toward the road. He sticks a finger into one of the bags. “Probably from last year,” he says.

The stacks of sandbags — not only in front of the coffee shop but a semi-permanent feature in and around Flagstaff in recent years — are there because of the Museum Fire, which torched almost 2,000 acres in 2019.

Fires and floods are closely related. Threats of post-fire flooding continue from anywhere from one year to a couple decades after the fires.

The very nature of the soil changes during intense forest fires. Superheated soils gain a wax-like, highly hydrophobic coating, Sánchez Meador says.

“The soil almost becomes like a sheet of glass,” with water sluicing right off it, he says. “Then, when a raindrop hits bare soil, it literally explodes.”

If there are grass or shrubs, they slow down and help absorb that water. Landscapes without grass or shrubs, such as those recently torched by forest fires, turn into chutes for water that can direct rivers straight into town.

The ramifications of uncontrolled and high-intensity forest fires are largely underappreciated. Not only do they exacerbate flooding, they’re incredibly expensive and can permanently alter the environment. The misunderstanding comes in part because humanity hasn’t experienced the kinds and frequency of fires that we’re now dealing with.

Arizona’s parameters for large fires also have changed. Before the year 2000, the biggest fires would be anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 acres, said Donald Falk, a University of Arizona ecologist and wildfire expert with more than 25 years in the field, in an interview with Arizona Luminaria last year.

Now our biggest fires are 200,000 to 500,000 acres.

Renewed attention and urgency, massive investments, and looking to Indigenous methods of forest management, including prescribed burns, are essential for maintaining the long-term habitability of hot and forested ecosystems, such as the vast Ponderosa forests of Northern Arizona.

“We see the drought in the rivers, on the land itself,” says Delbert Altaha, White Mountain Apache Tribe’s air-quality specialist. “Short monsoon seasons. Summers hot and long. Yeah, we’re worried about the forest and fires. We’ll have to adapt. That’s the only way to go. That’s what we’ve always done.”

U.S. Forest Service firefighter Preston Mercer describes the scene of a 2022 forest fire outside Flagstaff. Credit: John Washington

Ancient fires

Ponderosa pines, which make up huge portions of the forests throughout Arizona, learned to live with fires about 45 million years ago by adapting to low-severity, frequent fires.

A number of missteps, over the past century-and-a-half, have so altered the forests that now the Ponderosa pines are typically experiencing high-severity and infrequent fires — the opposite of what makes for a healthy forest.

Various factors contributed to more destructive fires: intensive logging in the late 19th century and then intense fire suppression efforts beginning in the 1960s. Cattle and sheep ranching, railroad development, and expanding populations all led to major changes in forests themselves and how humans interact with and live in them.

The U.S. Forest Service, founded in 1905, was initially charged with the suppression of all fires. In the early years of both the Forest Service and the National Park Service, “Complete fire suppression was the objective,” according to a 2007 study of fire as a forest management tool explains.

That approach has been hard to reverse, even after the National Park Service changed its policy in 1968 to recognize fire as a natural ecological process.

Saguaro National Monument (now Saguaro National Park) was an early test site of the new approach, beginning in 1971, for a wildland fire-use program. The park began allowing most fires to run their course from July 1 to Sept. 15. 

“Fire is an instrumental disturbance in the system,” Sánchez Meador says. “It is fundamental and needed to maintain a healthy system.”

A recent Southern Methodist University study co-authored by a team of scientists, including members of the Navajo Nation, White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Pueblo of Jemez, “suggests bringing ‘good fire’ back to the U.S. and other wildfire-prone areas, as Native Americans once did, could potentially blunt the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires.”

“Native American or Indigenous fire practices have shown us how people living in fire-prone places can positively coexist with wildfire in sustainable ways,” SMU fire anthropologist Christopher Roos writes.

The study looked at 400 years of evidence in New Mexico and Arizona’s forests to trace how Indigenous people, the Apache, Navajo and Jemez, used and lived with fire.

“What’s remarkable is that this impact of Native American fire management was evident across hundreds of square kilometers,” Roos said. “That is across entire mountain ranges.”

That’s knowledge that hasn’t been forgotten so much as overlooked — until recently.

A series of turquoise signs along southbound U.S. 89 near Tuba City in Coconino County proclaims the Navajo Nation’s resiliency. “Short monsoon seasons. Summers hot and long. Yeah, we’re worried about the forest and fires. We’ll have to adapt. That’s the only way to go. That’s what we’ve always done,” said Delbert Altaha, White Mountain Apache Tribe’s air-quality specialist. Credit: Sierra Alvarez/Cronkite News file photo

“We found that during periods of intensive use [of controlled burns], most of the discrete stands of trees we looked at don’t have any significant fire-climate patterns,” Roos said. “So, in this case, the absence of significant climate patterns when Native Americans were managing fire is taken as strong evidence that Native American fire management itself is creating that lack of fire-climate patterns, since all other places and time periods show those significant climate associations.”

In California, in particular, the state and federal governments are collaborating with Indigenous nations to restore cultural burning practices and keep forests healthy. The tribal nations are part of changing the conversation, turning fire from something to be feared into a tool. That rethinking is critical as neither forests nor climate are the same as they used to be. 

Don Hankins is a Plains Miwok fire expert and geography and planning professor at California State University, Chico. He’s long advocated for the use of prescribed burns around communities located in forests to mitigate massive, dangerous fires. 

He’s also argued for ensuring that Indigenous communities are included in revising policies to incorporate vital lessons from historic tribal cultural burning, as well as in the implementation of such burns.

“Integration of cultural perspectives of fire provides Indigenous peoples with the opportunity to engage with the restoration of healthy environments,” argued Hankins and co-author Christine Eriksen in a study of Indigenous fire knowledge in eastern Australia and California. Eriksen is an expert in wildfires, social dimensions of disasters, and climate change adaptation with the Center for Security Studies in Zurich.

“Indigenous practice inherently has recognised the country ‘speaking’ its needs through wildfire. This recognition drives the implementation of Indigenous prescription of fire,” Eriksen and Hankins wrote. “We believe a greater recognition of this traditional understanding of the environment could aid current struggles to manage the growing frequency of devastating wildfires if it is acknowledged by, and incorporated into, the practices of wildfire management agencies.”

Hankins served on Butte County’s Fire Safe Council board, was president of the California Indian Water Commission and, in 2018, lived just north of Paradise, when the deadliest U.S. fire in 100 years raged through the rural Northern California community

Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire. Nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed.

Stressing the value of alternative methods for wildfire management, Hankins has argued that the wildfire that started in the forests of the Sierra Nevada foothills may never have reached Paradise, if prescribed burns had been used to create a protective charred circle around the community.

In the midst of a long-term climate change-induced drought, increased overall temperatures, much of the landscape has basically turned into kindling. Even just a spark can now pose a threat.

“We’re seeing fires do things we haven’t seen them do,” Sánchez Meador says. “Erratic wind behavior. Drought. Increased temperature. Aridity of the fuels. All are climate-change induced. It took 150 years to get here, and there’s no quick way out of it.”

The Museum Fire, as seen from Buffalo Park, on July 21, 2019. Credit: Coconino National Forest

Smoldering costs

In 2010, the Schultz Fire tore through the San Francisco Peaks at edge of Flagstaff, burning about 15,000 acres. The human-caused blaze was ignited by an abandoned campfire.

Initial fire-suppression costs — dispatching the firefighter crews and equipment — totaled about $6 million. Over the next 10 years, however, according to a 2021 study from the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, the true costs of the fire ballooned to between $95 million and $100 million.

Those subsequent costs include channel work, building catchment basins, retainment ponds, retaining walls, helping people rebuild, and postfire planting.

Overall, Sánchez Meador says, “Fire suppression is the tip of the iceberg.”

Federal firefighting costs, split between the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service, now annually mount to nearly $4.5 billion.

In 2021, the agencies fought just under 60,000 fires. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, which tracks “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters,” wildfires — including price of fire suppression and final cleanup and rebuilding — cost the United States $11.2 billion just in 2021.

The Biden administration recently announced that they would funnel an additional nearly half a billion dollars to mitigate wildfire risk in 11 western states, including Arizona.

And, for the first time ever in the U.S., two national leaders responsible for lands are Indigenous — the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, and the National Parks Service Director, Charles F. Sams III.

At a news conference in Idaho announcing the investment in June, Haaland said climate change will continue to make fires in the West larger and we must continue to invest in conservation of our ecosystems.

“Nature is our greatest ally in the fight against climate change,” she said.

The ultimate goal, Sánchez Meador says, “is for fires to burn the way fires were meant to burn.”

He offered the example of the 2014 Slide Fire, near Sedona, as a “good fire.” “It largely did nothing but help. It burned into a ‘treated forest,’” he says, referencing a forest that had been maintained by controlled burns.

“We need more good fires,” he says.

Preston Mercer shows charred forest duff leftover from the 2022 Pipeline Fire outside Flagstaff. Credit: John Washington

Endless fire season

In January of 2022, a fire crew in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains was busy setting fires — the good kind: low-intensity, purposeful, and (seemingly) controlled — raking together piles of debris and lighting them with drip torches. It’s a practice that goes back before colonization, when Indigenous tribes used fire to manage the landscape.

But fire is unpredictable. Months after the crew was doing their work, an ember in one of the slash piles was still smoldering. High, dry winds eventually ignited another flame, which, by April, began raging. The fire went on torching the landscape until August, eventually burning more than 340,000 acres and destroying almost 1,000 buildings.

In May, while the fire in New Mexico was still burning, the Forest Service declared a moratorium on prescribed burns and published a damning assessment.

“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore wrote in the foreward to the report. “We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires.”

While the analysis found that prescribed fires in New Mexico were done according to policies, the fire was set in “much drier conditions than were recognized.” Human error contributed as well. Some weather stations, vital to ensuring conditions, were not operating and prescribed fires were not extinguished “after clear indications of high fire intensity and receptive fuels.”

The controversy over prescribed burns brewed as families in New Mexico remained outraged and deeply critical of the Forest Service.

After a 90-day pause on prescribed burns, the Forest Service issued new guidelines as well as a new strategy, “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.”

More stringent approval, oversight, and review of prescribed burns is a big focus of the new strategy.

The suspension and reset may have been a dramatic change for some Forest Service stations, but for the Flagstaff crew, according to multiple officials with the Coconino National Forest, they’ve pretty much been following the new protocols for a long time.

Preston Mercer is a fire management officer based in Flagstaff. In the summer of 2022, Preston went to help fight the Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico. He was shaken by what he saw.

“Any time you have that many homes burn down, something is not right,” he says.

As he kicks at the pine duff with his heavy boots in the shade of a Ponderosa forest outside of Flagstaff last summer, Mercer reflects on the Calf Fire: “This isn’t fun anymore. It crushes your heart to see those homes burn.”

Mercer has been fighting fires for almost 30 years, after applying for his first firefighting job the day after he graduated from high school. He’s been helicoptered into remote fires, has done 40-plus day stints in the wilderness fighting flames, and is now one of the Flagstaff-based leaders planning prescribed burns in the surrounding national forest.

Maps on the wall of the Flagstaff Ranger District office help U.S. Forest Service fire managers plan prescribed burns. Credit: John Washington

“It’s everyone’s problem”

In the command center at the Flagstaff Ranger District office, a series of huge maps hang on the walls. Mercer and fellow firefighters Jesse Causer and Aaron Graser are working out steps toward a prescribed burn plan in the fall of 2022.

First, locations for the burns need to be identified, which is complicated enough. The district has a prescribed burn target of 40,000 acres a year, and the teams aim to conduct burns in different patches of forest about every seven years.

But there are limitations, with plenty of areas limited by cattle grazing or protected species, including goshawks, Mexican spotted owls, and leopard frogs.

And then, as they plan to fight fire with fire, there’s an at least 15-step process — including getting “administrative ducks in a row,” Causer says. Preparing the crew, informing the public, carefully checking the weather, getting a smoke permit, doing a last-minute briefing, lighting a test fire, and getting a final “Go/No-Go” authorization.

Even after all of those steps are taken and a crew begins burning, there are multiple safeguards they continue to follow as they monitor the fire before it is officially declared extinguished. And sometimes, as with the Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, an ember can smolder undetected for months.

“There is no end to fire season,” Graser says.

Which is why forest managers and firefighters need help — from politicians, developers, builders and residents.

“It’s not just one agency’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.”

Andrew Hostad is a fire prevention technician with the Forest Service who has worked in wildfire management for 20 years.

“It’s an all-hands-on, all-lands approach,” he says.

The aftermath of the Museum Fire, which began July 21, 2019 and burned 1,961 acres. These photos were taken at the same location on the north side of the Mt Elden, with the “before” photo taken on July 16, 2019, five days before the Museum Fire began, and the “after” photo taken Oct. 8, 2020. Credit: Brady Smith, Coconino National Forest

Healthy forests

“Fire doesn’t obey jurisdictional boundaries,” Hostad says. Which is why he argues we need an all-systems approach.

“It has to be a problem of the community, the whole community,” he says.

He pointed to the “shared stewardship” model. A holistic approach, including federal and state and local government, as well as communities and individuals.

“New Mexico is a great example,” he says. “Everybody came together, looked at a map, started prioritizing getting the work done.”

Arizona, meanwhile, “is doing the best it can,” Hostad says, “given the diversity of interests and the multiple ecosystems, on top of being a forest on the edge.”

At an October 2022 summit on firefighting, President Joe Biden, touted that “between the American Rescue Plan and my 2023 budget request, we’ve increased federal firefighting grants by $320 million.”

“Fires will always be a fact of human life,” Biden said.

That’s a message that Arizona’s Indigenous population doesn’t need the president to tell them.

“Fire is traditional. We’ve been lighting them since as long as there have been Apaches,” says Altaha, the air-quality specialist from the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Altaha reflects on the now-retired fire suppression approach: “The Forest Service wasn’t taking care of the forest like they should have, but then they finally caught up.”

There are significant challenges ahead, but Sánchez Meador says, “As a society and a planet, I’m optimistic.”

Walking on forest service land, what Sánchez Meador calls “treated” land, he explains what a healthy forest looks like.

Trees were removed, making the forest less dense. In the open spaces, fescue grasses were sprouting up, along with buckbrush — fire tolerant and a favorite to deer and elk. Those are the grasses and shrubs that will burn, that fire experts say need to burn, rather than densely crowded trees that will turn a low-intensity fire into a raging conflagration.

Treating that land costs between $700 and $15,000 an acre, and needs to be managed every five to 10 years.

Costs add up quickly. But, Sánchez Meador knows: “This is the beginning of a healthy forest.”

Resources for reducing fire risks

Despite the understandable fear, or even fatalism, that may beset some vulnerable wildland communities, there are resilience measures, ways for individuals and businesses to be more “firewise.” 

Andrew Hostad, a fire prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service in Coconino National Forest, offered a number of basic actions the public can take. Foremost is to abide by fire restrictions and practice basic prevention methods.  

• Don’t light campfires when they’re restricted. 

• Don’t toss cigarette butts or shoot off fireworks. 

• Make sure you don’t park hot vehicles in high grass or have chains dragging from trailers that light a spark. 

​​And when fires do come, make sure to:

• Pay attention to evacuation alerts.

• Have a go-bag ready.

Homeowners also have a lot they can do far before a fire threatens their home:

• Don’t let embers get into your attic or basement crawl spaces by closing off gaps with metal mesh or screens.

• Fireproof your soffit and eaves.

• Clean up dead trees, tumbleweed, clear pine needles in gutters.

• Add fire breaks — such as metal segments — to wooden fences that are attached to or close to houses.

• Keep propane tanks and firewood away from the house.

• A short guide also lists multiple other considerations.

• The National Fire Protection Association also has multiple resources and guides.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...