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Thu, April 15

Saving Jacob Lake: Did forest treatments steer the 2020 Mangum Fire away from the North Rim community?

McCall smokejumpers work night shift operations on the Mangum Fire June 22, 2020. The quick moving fire burned 71,450 acres on the Kaibab Plateau. The fire threatened to run through the Jacob Lake area. (Photo/Kaibab National Forest/Mike McMillan)

McCall smokejumpers work night shift operations on the Mangum Fire June 22, 2020. The quick moving fire burned 71,450 acres on the Kaibab Plateau. The fire threatened to run through the Jacob Lake area. (Photo/Kaibab National Forest/Mike McMillan)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — In the summer of 2020, the largest fire in the history of Kaibab National Forest tore through the ponderosa pine forests above the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, causing the evacuation of the Jacob Lake and North Rim communities, threatening several homes and other structures and eventually burning over 70,000 acres of ponderosa and pinyon-juniper habitat.

The human-caused fire started June 8 near Big Springs, Arizona on the Kaibab Plateau and showed limited growth over the first four days, but high winds caused the fire to surge from 2,238 acres June 12, to over 10,000 acres by June 13.

The fire was pushed north by strong, gusting south winds that blew embers up to half a mile ahead of the main fire, breaching the control lines. Over 500 firefighters, including several hot shot crews, dozer operators and air tankers, worked to suppress the fire and protect the Jacob Lake, Big Springs, House Rock and North Rim communities.

Each day of the fire presented new challenges to fire managers as ongoing drought conditions and high winds fueled the fire.

“It was wind-driven, we would start to get a handle on the fire and then we would get the Red Flag warnings with high winds,” said North Kaibab Ranger District Fire Management Officer Dave Gesser. “We had a 10-mile run out there at one point.”

Extreme fire behavior continued from the high winds, low humidity and high temperatures, pushing the fire northeast, and on the fifth day the fire jumped Highway 89A and moved northeast toward Jacob Lake.

Structure protection crews, aided by intense application of fire retardant from air tankers, worked all day and into the night to protect the Jacob Lake community.

Roads were closed to the North Rim and Kaibab Plateau as fire crews raced to protect the Jacob Lake campgrounds, lodge, cabins, restaurant, store, gas station and visitor center.

However, as the fire crept closer, fire personnel were able to create containment lines that tied-in to past forest treatments and prescribed burns, Gesser said.

“There has been a lot of treatment in and around Jacob Lake that really helped move the fire through that area,” he said. “(It) dropped it out of the canopies and brought it back down on the ground. The guys were able to go in with some back burn operations and really protect that area.”


A preliminary map of the Mangum Fire shows the high severity fire areas (crown fires) skirted around the previously burned and thinned areas around Jacob Lake. The red represents the most intense burning, the yellow represents moderate burning and the green is the lowest intensity burning. The cross-hatched areas represent previous prescribed and natural burns. (Map/Kaibab National Forest)

The fire continued to run northeast, although skirting the Jacob Lake area, and by June 16 had grown to 47,561 acres. Three homes in the Houserock Road areas were evacuated with smoke affecting air quality as far east as Tuba City, Arizona.

The fire consumed pinyon-juniper habitat north of Jacob Lake causing the closure of parts of Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness.

On June 25, the fire was 68 percent contained and by June 29 highways were reopened and evacuation orders were lifted. The fire was fully contained July 7.

History of forest treatments

According to Forest Fuels Specialist Drew Leiendecker, prescribed fire treatments, and mechanical and hand thinning operations have been ongoing on the North Zone of Kaibab National Forest for the past decade.

“When we talk about fuels treatments, whether it’s mechanical treatments or prescribed fire, they don’t stop fire,” he said. “That’s not the intent of them, the intent is to change fire behavior, reduce fire effects.”

Leiendecker said the treatments around Jacob Lake gave fire mangers more options as the fire crept closer.

“It came to those treatments where the fuels were reduced, it dropped down from the crowns to the surface and gave us the ability and time to go in and protect Jacob Lake,” he said.

Fire managers plan to continue forest treatments on the North Kaibab with the recently approved Kaibab Plateau Ecological Restoration Project.

The landscape scale restoration project includes a combination of prescribed fire and non-commercial, mechanical vegetation treatments on approximately 518,000 acres of the North Kaibab Ranger District to reduce the threat of uncharacteristic, high-intensity wildfire and to restore the structure, species composition, and function of ecosystems within the project area.

“We are basically looking at additional projects there across the entire plateau trying to get a fire interval of about 15 years back in place across the top of the plateau,” Leiendecker said.

According to Richard Gonzalez, silviculturist with Kaibab National Forest, there are 6,500 acres currently under contract for logging and 3,100 acres that are currently being logged.

“Those acres were pretty critical in getting personnel into Jacob Lake to do what they need to do to protect that infrastructure up there,” he said.

However, Gonzalez said it is a combination of logging, hand thinning and burning that is needed to make forest restoration work.

“Reintroducing fire, reintroducing those spaces in between those groups of trees, that all helps with sustainability and long-term watershed function,” he said.

With COVID-safety precautions in place last year, prescribed burning and many forest thinning operations were suspended, however, Kaibab National Forest plans to ramp up operations in 2021 as the pandemic appears to be waning.

“This year we are going to be basically trying to get back into the saddle,” Leiendecker said. “We are looking at opportunities to get back into doing treatments while considering smoke impacts to both our firefighters and the community.”

According to Arthur Gonzalez, fire staff officer with Kaibab National Forest, fire mangers plan to conduct prescribed burns in various locations around Jacob Lake and the Kaibab Plateau, the Coconino Rim east of Tusayan, the Three Sisters area north of Williams and the Sunflower Flat area south of Williams.

Gonzalez said logging operations will continue north of Parks and south of Williams off the Perkinsville Road.

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