Arizona has been the scene of human occupation and use for over 10,000 years. Native Americans hunted, farmed and gathered edible and medicinal plants for thousands of years prior to the first European exploration in the late 16th century by Spanish explorers. Historically, a natural fire regime of fragmented wildfires was common throughout the landscape and was congruent with human activities. Since the beginning of the early 20th century, the frequency of natural fire has decreased dramatically. The relationship of fire and ecosystems has been significantly altered, largely by human activities on the landscape, resulting in severe wild fires in “firescapes.”
A “firescape” is a large area, such as a mountain range, where fire is an important part of ecosystem processes. It can also include places that need to be protected from fire, such as the desert, where fire is not a natural occurrence and plant life is particularly vulnerable. In Southeastern Arizona’s Sky Islands, Fire Scape is a management tool whose framework promotes managing fires across large landscapes to achieve ecological soundness, multiple-party engagement and safe treatment that will contribute to sustainable, resilient ecosystems. Arizona’s Sky Islands are a regional patchwork of mountain ranges rising above the surrounding lowland deserts. Mid-elevation grasslands, woodlands, and forests of the Sky Islands developed over thousands of years under regimes of frequent fire. The land ownership in the Sky Islands is a combination of Federal, State, and private. The Fire Scape collaborative partnership involves: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, Nature Conservancy, University of Arizona and the public.
High fuel loads set the stage for high-severity fires that have occurred in many Sky Islands in recent years. Fire Scape is intended to increase fire management flexibility, efficiency, and consistency across hundreds of thousands of acres of adjoining Federal and private lands and is intended to accomplish the following goals:
• Integrate all existing fire management programs.
• Reducing costs, resource damage, and threats to public and firefighter safety from future wild fires.
• Restoring and sustaining ecological processes in fire-dependent ecosystems.
• Creating and maintaining fuel conditions that produce manageable fire behavior.
• Promoting a cost-effective, efficient and coordinated fire and fuel management program across multiple Federal agencies.
Fire Scape has made successful accomplishments in the areas of economics, safety and community involvement. Fire Scape planning efforts strategically enable land managing agencies to establish legal authority allowing them to work at large scales while complying with applicable environmental laws. These preemptive measures streamline compliance and paperwork improving wildfire response time, safety and reducing operating costs.
Since 2010, the Fire Scape group has been working with the Integrated Landscape Assessment Project (ILAP) team to explore whether ILAP data, tools, and information as applied to their landscape area can help to inform their restoration decisions. A key question is how ecosystems may respond to the combined influence of major disturbances, such as wild fire and invasive species, in an era of climate change.
The collaboration of Fire Scape and ILAP has been very beneficial to strategic planning efforts. According to Jennifer Ruyle, a forest planner for the Coronado National Forest: “When the Fire Scape group started coordinating with the ILAP team, it allowed us to make that jump from looking at data from isolated mountain ranges to looking at data across a regional landscape. The very best part was having people representing a whole host of jurisdictions, ownerships, and interests in the same room, looking at data that was relevant to the whole group, as well as to individual entities.” The most critical consideration for the long-term is how ecosystems are going to respond to the combined influence of major disturbances, such as wild fire and invasive species, in an era of climate change.
Ultimately, Arizona is ripe for a perfect storm of increased wildfire frequency and severe impacts due to extended drought, unhealthy forest conditions, and expanding population centers. Given these mounting pressures, the Fire Scape program is making significant progress by strategically sharing resources and accomplishing shared goals. Fire Scape’s collaborative efforts are credited with a proven track record of improved safety to communities and healthier forest ecosystems.
Authored by Luca De Stefanis, Institute For Natural Resources (2012)