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Valentine Fire restores forest and community

Firefighter operates a plastic ball dispenser from a helicopter.

Aerial fire ignitions conducted during the Valentine Fire. Spheres, about the size of ping pong balls, filled with an incendiary cocktail of potassium permanganate activated by ethylene glycol were dropped by firefighters to reduce the available fuels for the main body of the Valentine Fire. (USDA Forest Service photo by Danny Fairchild)

Smoke rising from a forest is ominous. Often it is the first alarm of a new wildfire, sparked by lightning or carelessness; a wildfire that could potentially become catastrophic and deadly.

On August 16, 2023, residents of Poderosa and Colcord Estates and neighboring towns in the Tonto National Forest Payson Ranger District felt that foreboding when they looked up at the sky and saw rising smoke. That evening, smoke began billowing through the Ponderosa Pine, 11 miles northeast of Young, Arizona, and 27 miles east of Payson. The source of the smoke was the Valentine Fire caused by lightning.

The Valentine Fire burned in a location and under specific weather conditions that gave firefighters a fighting chance. Rather than rush to extinguish the fire, Payson Ranger District personnel relied on their strong relationships with local communities and a solid plan to use the fire to reduce the intensity of future fires in the area.

Thus, the Forest Service’s Type 3 Incident Management Team and more than 150 responding firefighters devised a strategy to address the fire within the guidelines of the Land Management Plan.

“Fire managers follow a plan that specifies how to respond to fire in an area,” said Daniel Whatley, Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer. “We implemented a ‘confine/contain’ strategy and reintroduced fire into an ecosystem that has been devoid of fire for more than 50 years.”

Crews established fire breaks around approximately 10,000 acres and managed the Valentine Fire within that zone. Firefighters kept the fire away from power lines, state routes 260 and 512 and nearby communities.

“Much of the acreage was uphill and downhill from the communities,” Whatley said. “The location of the fire was a key factor in determining our strategy.”

When officials finally extinguished the Valentine Fire on December 1, 2023, it covered 9,644 acres of ponderosa pine, hardwood leaf litter and timber. The price tag: $10 million. However, Whatley noted that it would have taken the district between three and five years and approximately $50 million to achieve similar results using mechanical fuel treatments. The benefits of the Valentine Fire for future wildfire risk reduction are immediate.

Communication and trust

USDA Forest Service Assistant Fire Management Officer – Fire Prevention, Ansgar Mitchell, facilitates the Valentine Fire community meeting. (USDA Forest Service photo by Debra Bashaw)

Payson District Ranger Matt Paciorek cited how years of Forest Service employees shared consistent messages with partners, permit holders, local law enforcement agencies and fire departments and the subsequent trust resulted in the complementary goals of restoring fire as a natural ecological process and reducing fuels to to enlarge the forest. resilience within the area.

“Honest, transparent communication goes hand in hand with building trust,” said Paciorek. “When national forests achieve that trust with local communities, fire managers gain more flexibility in choosing firefighting strategies and residents gain more certainty during the stressful events of wildfire.”

Over the course of the Valentine Fire, Forest Service personnel organized four community meetings with assistance from Incident Management Teams and local law enforcement. Three meetings took place in Christopher Creek, Arizona, and one meeting in Young, Arizona.

“During these meetings, our subject matter experts provided updates and answered attendees’ questions about the fire,” Paciorek continued. “Public information officers created social media posts and distributed newsletters while press releases were posted on the Tonto website. Efficient communication continues to help the Forest Service build and strengthen relationships.”

Learning to live with fire

During the community meetings, Forest Service presentations include information about fire ecology, an ecological branch that focuses on the role of wildfires and its relationship to the environment around it, both living and non-living. It examines the fire dependence and adaptation of plants and animals, fire history, fire regime and fire effects on ecosystems.

Mary Lata, a fire ecologist in the Tonto National Forest, attended two of the four meetings. Her briefing informed attendees about pine needle ignition, lightning strikes in the Payson area over a 50-year period and their impacts, and the correlation between fires and dry thunderstorms in June and July that precede Arizona’s monsoon season.

“I explained why fire is a natural process and how fire often operates as an integral part of the ecosystem in which it occurs,” Lata said. “It is important that residents living in or adjacent to a national forest understand that wildfires have occurred in Arizona for centuries and will continue to occur.”

“We also continue to explain the benefits of fire to partners and communities,” she said. “After decades of fire exclusion, an ecosystem that requires periodic fire becomes unhealthy. Trees are stressed by overcrowding; fire-dependent species disappear; and flammable fuels build up and become dangerous.”

The right fire in the right place at the right time protects residential areas from extreme fires and at the same time protects local ecosystems.

“It recycles nutrients back into the soil, removes unwanted species that threaten native species in an ecosystem, minimizes the spread of pest insects and diseases, and promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants,” Lata said. “Fire can be good for people and the land.”

A forest firefighter walks with a drip torch and lays a low fire line along a road.

Ground crews conduct fire operations along Valentine Fire perimeter lines. (USDA Forest Service photo by Matthew Teele)

Sense of community

Ansgar Mitchell was a Valentine Fire Public Information Officer (PIO) and worked almost the entire fire. When not working as a PIO, he is an Assistant Fire Prevention Officer in the Prescott National Forest. His work is dedicated to increasing community involvement and providing fire safety education. The successes he saw coming out of the events of the Valentine Fire were based not only on land stewardship, but also on “a real sense of community in the face of adversity.”

“It provided a communication link for neighbors who have never met, creating an awareness in the neighborhood not only for fire emergencies, but for events that impact everyone,” Mitchell said. “And… it’s still in use.”

President Darin Palmer of Christopher Creek’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made room in their building to host Forest Service community meetings. And what Palmer observed in the Forest Service and its interactions with the community was a cohesively stronger community.

“A lot of our sense of community started to grow at these Forest Service meetings,” Palmer said. “It gave us a chance to get to know each other better, to share what we learned, and it gave us a chance to be better neighbors. We started to see an increase in personal communication and friendships.”

The Valentine Fire wasn’t just a successfully managed fire that saved money or managed the land, it brought people together and strengthened community ties.

“These may seem like small blessings for our community,” Palmer said. “But for us who live here, they were miraculous.”

Sunshine peeks through the trees and smoke as the slow-moving fire reaches the road.

Crews created a back burn of the fire to reduce the amount of fuel available for the main fire. This allows firefighters to identify containment facilities or barriers to the main fire. (USDA Forest Service photo by Matthew Teele)