Residents express frustration over Forest Service burn policies

Brady Smith, U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Officer, opens the meeting in Sedona about smoke complaints from nearby wildfires on Wednesday. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

Brady Smith, U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Officer, opens the meeting in Sedona about smoke complaints from nearby wildfires on Wednesday. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

SEDONA -- All the decision makers for the Coconino National Forest, from Superintendent Laura Jo West on down, as well as state and local fire agencies were in Sedona Wednesday.

The Forest Service held the public forum to air the dirty issue of smokey skies before many disgruntled area residents.

Brady Smith, a forest spokesman, moderated the meeting. He opened the discussion by saying "There is no way we will persuade you that all our decisions were the correct ones."

The forum was scheduled in the wake of three days of dense smoke, mainly in Sedona, from a trio of fires south of Flagstaff. The gathering said other areas, including Williams, were also affected.

One woman quoted a friend, who told her, "I gotta' get out of here. My asthma is so bad and I can hardly breath."

The forest superintendent said there are, on average, 300 to 600 wildfires ignited each year on the forest. "Fire will always be here as long as there are forests," said West.

"We know there are people who go to bed and wake up and can't catch their breath." She explained Forest Service planning intends to reduce that problem.

The officials tried to explain the science behind the process of converting a random quarter-acre lightning strike fire into a forest management exercise. They focused on the Mormon Fire, which began as a lightning strike and evolved into an 11,000-acre management area using low intensity fire. But it also contributed to the heavy smoke.

Contemporary forest thinking is to re-introduce more fire into the environment regularly to clear up the brushy undergrowth and prevent massive out-of-control wildfires.

They said they did a lot of planning for the management area to identify environmental values and protect the watershed and private lands and prevent irritable smoke.

In this case, the wind flow did not cooperate.

Typically blowing from the southwest to the northeast at this time of year, the wind forecast changed frequently, blowing thick smoke into Sedona. The only solution, then, was to drive the fire into a "control" to put it out.

Citizens wanted to know about alternatives to fire.

Forester Dick Fleischman said the small diameter trees targeted by the 4FRI - the Four Forest Restoration Initiative -- intends to restore mechanical thinning of a large area from Tusayan to the New Mexico border. The problem, he said, is that "the market is not there yet. The small trees, he said, are worthless" and there is only one new mill constructed in Williams. "We are trying to get the industry re-established."

The less you burn, the more smoke there is, the byproduct of a lack of treatment for 30 to 100 years, fire crews explained. "There had been no fire in the Mormon Mountain area for 130 years," they said.

But, the discussion of the day-by-day fire management did not dissuade the over-arching belief by audience members that suppression or mechanical thinning should be used instead of fire. It did not allay the frustration of residents who prefer fire crews simply put out the fire.

One audience member said, "No more burns," to crowd applause.

"If it was started by lighting, how did you allow it to become so large?" another person asked again.

"We want fire back on the land, a little wind, but not too windy, to clean it up, but as safely as possible," said Brady Smith.

"Why was it managed as an opportunity?" asked another person. "The particulate meter went to 'hazardous' and I was miserable, but you were going at your goal at all costs."

A man who said he lives two miles from Mingus Mountain said his wife suffers asthma and COPD, but the particulates were so high, even in Cottonwood, that she remains still in bed today.

He wanted to know "how health is factored into fire planning?"

"We cannot promise that we will never burn again, but we take complaints seriously and the needs of health," said Smith, who added the Forest Service now has a complaint line and all complaints go to the entire management team.

"When will it get to the point there is a better way to thin the forests?" asked another woman.

"When will you change forest policy?" another asked again.

"We need to get back to timber and cattle management again," insisted another.

A woman said she had lived over 40 years in the area: "The sky used to be blue."

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