In July, Flagstaff faced a state of emergency caused by the Museum Fire. Not even two full months after the ignition of the Museum Fire, Coconino County faces a new threat: the Whiskey Fire.
On Sept. 2, the Whiskey Fire reportedly started from a lightning strike during Arizona’s monsoon season. According to the InciWeb incident overview, the fire is burning approximately 8 miles northeast of Turkey Butte Lookout, which is located near Sedona. Additionally, the smoke will affect numerous areas in Coconino County, including Flagstaff, Munds Park, Kachina Village, Sedona, Mormon Lake Village, Mountainaire, Forest Highlands, Doney Park, the Highway 89A Corridor, the Village of Oak Creek and portions of the Interstate 40.
Fire crews are allowing the fire to move naturally along the landscape. This decision may help consume excess fuels, such as trees and shrubbery, and reduce the risk of hazardous wildfires in the future. According to the incident overview, the goal is to also rejuvenate the forest by stimulating vegetation growth.
During a phone interview, public information officer for Coconino National Forest Allyson Pokrzywinski, spoke about the approach to managing the Whiskey Fire.
“We allow a lightning-started fire to burn to remove some of that fuel. If a fire were to move through in the future, it will be stopped either by the burn scar of the Whiskey Fire, or it will be decreased in severity,” Pokrzywinski said. “We are allowing the fire to play its natural role in the ecosystem, but we also actively manage the fire. We have a strategy ... We allow it to burn naturally to an extent so we can also manage where the fire goes.”
While allowing a fire to continue burning, firefighters pay close attention to its direction, intensity and overall effect.
“We do not just sit back, let the fire burn and let it do whatever it wants to,” Pokrzywinski said. “It is important to allow fire to play its natural role, because we live in Flagstaff, which is a fire-dependent ecosystem. Ponderosa pine forests need fire to thrive, [because] without fire, the forest becomes overgrown and overcrowded.”
Pokrzywinski explained the science behind allowing the Whiskey Fire to naturally develop.
“[When overcrowding occurs], the trees are less healthy, there is less habitat for the wildlife and there is less grass, which wildlife depends on for food sources. There is also less water available for humans and for wildlife.”
In 2014, the Slide Fire started in approximately the same region as the Whiskey Fire. In the five years since the Slide Fire, trees and other plants have regrown throughout the area, Pokryzwinski said.
“When a fire burns, it does not burn everything. It burns in mosaic patterns,” Pokrzywinski said. “There is still going to be leftover fuel that did not burn in that fire, and there will be lots of additional fuel buildup since 2014.”
Wildfires have varying levels of seriousness. Pokrzywinski said the Museum Fire was more dangerous and concerning than the Whiskey Fire.
“The Whiskey Fire and the Museum Fire are very different fires,” Pokrzywinski said. “The Whiskey Fire was started by a lightning strike, [and it] has burned at low to moderate intensity, cleaned up forest fuel and has done good things.”
According to a Sept. 17 report, the Whiskey Fire stretched to 3,900 acres and reached 16% containment. On Sept. 18, the Whiskey Fire had reached 4,190 acres and remained at 16% containment.
Fire managers also reported implementing helicopter support to “conduct aerial burnout operations.”
In addition, firefighters on the ground contributed by performing planned hand ignitions.
Coconino Community College sophomore Katia Rodriguez lived in Sedona for 18 years before relocating to Flagstaff for school. Rodriguez said she is familiar with wildfires, their benefits and ramifications.
“I have noticed the fire in the past month ... I definitely noticed that the smoke has been affecting how I breathe, but not significantly enough to be harmful,” Rodriguez said. “I also feel like the weather has been a little warmer than usual, considering it’s normally cooler at around this time of year.”
Rodriguez also spoke about the Whiskey Fire, and specifically said she found it less dangerous than other wildfires in recent years.
“Fires aren’t that uncommon to me, so I’m not very concerned that [the Whiskey Fire] will have any dangerous impact,” Rodriguez said.
On Sept. 19, the Whiskey Fire expanded to 5,859 acres but reached 34% containment.
Pokrzywinski said firefighting responsibility was transferred to a type 4 incident command team Sept. 20, which calls for the use of fewer crews and resources.
According to InciWeb, all coordinated burnout operations are complete. Residents of northern Arizona should be mindful of smoky conditions, which will likely dissipate once precipitation moves through the area. According to Pokryzwinski, the fire and smokey conditions should clear around mid October.
Any additional updates can be found on the Whiskey Fire information page.