By Lucy Whitmarsh
Special to the Beat
The Fire This Time, a panel discussion, was presented as part of the Gila River Festival on Friday, September 14, at the Silco Theater. The panel included Gila National Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell, The Nature Conservancy's Martha Cooper, Jim Brooks with New Mexico Game and Fish and Gila National Forest biologist Jerry Monzingo. The discussion was moderated by Philip Connors, author of "Fire Season." The focus of the discussion covered two major topics. What were the effects of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire and should we expect more mega-fires in the future?
Cooper asked the audience, how do we value our watershed and rivers? She said: “We need to think carefully about management.” The Gila National Forest is recognized as having a long history of good forestry management practices. The scale of the Whitewater-Baldy fire was larger than what we are historically used to. The fire did burn in the tree canopy in areas of the fire. There were also areas where previous recent fires prevented the Whitewater- Baldy fire from being as severe as it was in other areas that had not burned as recently. Cooper said, “Research shows that managed fires are the most effective way to reduce fuel load in the wilderness.” Managed fires create a healthy environment.
Brooks reported that fish recovery began the first week in June. Four different species of native trout were affected by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire watershed area. In streams that have accumulated run off from the burn scar areas the native fish were removed and relocated to similar habitats in other locations or taken to fish hatcheries where the fish can be bred for future restocking. The area affected by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire has reduced the fish habitat in the Gila National Forest by one-third. In the fish rescue program helicopters are used to evacuate the fish. When the rains start and wash the ash and debris into the waterways not only are the fish smothered but the insects that the fish feed on are also wiped out. "We don’t know how long it will take for the waterways to recover so that the native fish can be brought back to the affected streams," Brooks said. For the short term the best fishing is on West Fork of the Gila. Game and Fish has backed off on stocking upper portions of the river until the habitat improves.
When asked if the Whitewater-Baldy Fire was a good fire or a bad fire, Russell responded that it was both. Parts of the wilderness were severely burned and other parts were not. The human aspect also has to be considered. There was an effect on tourism and the use of the forest by visitors and locals. The Catwalks remain closed because there continues to be a treat of flooding. Glenwood has been affected the most, but as yet has not experienced severe flooding. There has been a change to the Whitewater-Baldy burn area, which is hard for people to accept, but the forest will come back. Lightning-caused fires cannot be prevented. For the Whitewater-Baldy Fire because of the remote location and the drought conditions, it was managed and extinguished as expediently as possible. Because it was early in the fire season resources were available and the air support that was needed due to the remote location of the fire was supplied.
Monzingo believes that the Whitewater-Baldy Fire helped the functionality of the wilderness. The management of the fire was in keeping with policies that have been in place since the 1970s. He believes that the fire does benefit the vegetation in the long run. The present standard is that fires are burning hotter. The hotter fires are a result of a drying trend that includes less snowfall and continuing drought conditions. The recovery process is very complex. Resource specialists evaluate the damage and make recommendations. Recovery in the Whitewater-Baldy burn area will not be seen for a long time. Some areas have been seeded to prevent soil from washing into the waterways. The seed mix used included barley, though not native, it is fast growing and short-lived since it does not reseed. The reseeding of the native grasses will stabilize the soil and allow native vegetation to develop. There is an opportunity to do research in the area on burn area restoration but the project may not be funded.