Restoration After Wildfire: The Importance of Leadership, Culture, and Generational Stewardship

Schultz Fire north of Flagstaff AZ, Photo courtesy Coconino County, Arizona

Schultz Fire north of Flagstaff AZ, Photo courtesy Coconino County, Arizona

THE FIRE

At 11:09 a.m. on June 20th, 2010, an unattended campfire sparked a wildfire north of Flagstaff, Arizona in Coconino County. Due to high winds and excessive forest overgrowth, the fire grew quickly, and firefighters were unable to fully contain it until July 1st. In the end, 15,000 acres on the east side of the San Francisco peaks were burned to the ground. Over 40% was on steep slopes.

THE FLOODING

The intensity of the burn was so hot, the soil became hydrophobic, almost like glass, and it no longer absorbed water. Unfortunately, the fire happened just before monsoon season, and 2 weeks after it was out, the first rains came. “That first flood was something that none of us could have imagined,” says Coconino County Supervisor and HECHO Arizonal Spokesperson Liz Archuleta. “Water, soil, trees, and even 4-foot boulders came off the mountain and went through the neighborhoods. People saw 4 foot walls of mud coming at them, and unfortunately, a 12-year-old girl was swept away by the floodwaters and died.” People were traumatized – they said the approaching floodwaters and debris sounded like an airplane falling or a train coming down the track. The President declared it an official disaster.

That was just the beginning. The County suffered through 25 flooding events that summer.

Each time, the vegetation and water came down at such a high velocity, it began to create channels all through the forest. Then, the channels turned into canyons – as the water eroded the side walls and they began to sluff off like you see when icebergs cave. That made even more soil, more trees, and more boulders come down into the neighborhoods.  

Paintbrush Corridor Flood Damaged Car

Paintbrush Corridor Flood Damaged Car

Paintbrush Corridor Flood Damaged House

Paintbrush Corridor Flood Damaged House

Coconino County found itself repairing roads and other infrastructure constantly. The people worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week trying to protect lives and property. That summer and the following months, they did an all-hands-on-deck effort with community volunteers and residents to place 1.5 million sandbags and 5.5 miles of concrete barriers to protect homes where waters were flowing the heaviest.

Over the course of 5 years, over $30 million was spent on mitigation efforts. Adding in other County and residential impacts, as well as the value of both endangered species habitat and human life, experts from the Northern Arizona University Ecological Restoration Institute conservatively estimated the total impact of the Schultz Fire at between $133 million and $147 million.

THE RESTORATION

Officials quickly surmised that unless they addressed the flooding on the forest in a methodical way, they would spend all of the County’s resources on repair and infrastructure. Archuleta had the idea to bring in experts from all over the country who have looked at post-wildfire situations. A local engineer was identified who had worked to restore riverbeds to talk about the science behind this and what could be done in the forest. Additionally, 30 people from around the country familiar with this type of work were brought in. And Lucinda Andreani, Director of Public Works, headed up the newly formed Schultz Flood Team.

The team conducted hydrology studies and key experts walked all 65 miles of the channels that had formed on the mountain. Then they looked at other post-wildfire channels around the peaks – some more recent and some from 40-50 years ago – to get a feel for the natural restoration process. “If you give the forest 75-100+ years it will restore itself,” says Andreani. “The Schultz Flood Team came up with a plan to accelerate that restoration – it would happen within 5 – 10 years.” A complete restoration was not feasible, so they identified key areas that were particularly at high risk and where residents overwhelming supported the project.

Construction

Construction

Restored Alluvial Fan

Restored Alluvial Fan

The project was funded by money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, FEMA, the Forest Service and the state. Money also came locally from the Flood Control District – funded by local taxpayers. Despite the fact that the economy and property values had tanked, the County Supervisors voted to increase the Flood Control District tax to match the federal funds.

Andreani worked tirelessly with the team to implement the plan. After 3 years, the work has been completed and they’ve had no problems since. Now, they’ve become a national model for restoration after a forest fire.

The Flagstaff community also voted to add more local taxes to thin and restore the forest on other side of San Francisco Peaks. “We value our outdoors so much that we’re willing to use our hard-earned money to tax ourselves, to make sure a similar disaster doesn’t happen on the other side of the mountain,” says Archuleta. “We understand that natural resources are finite.”

THE LATINA LEADERSHIP & COMMUNITY

Andreani credits Archuleta for her passion and dedication, which lead to this successful effort.  “None of this would have happened without Liz’s leadership,” says Andreani.  “She secured the funds and the permits, and worked with the federal agencies.  She couldn’t sit back and sustain the risk to our residents or endure the burden on our County’s finances.”

Archuleta says her motivation came in part because of her values as a Latina, and her culture’s centuries-old traditions of stewardship of the land.  “As a native of Flagstaff, I am fortunate to live in this town of incredible beauty-- surrounded by forests, clean air, clean water, and many national parks,” she says.  Archuleta’s mother’s family has lived in Flagstaff for five generations; and her father’s family arrived in New Mexico in 1598.  “My family passed down respect for the land,” she continued.  “If I didn’t feel a strong connection to the forest, then I probably wouldn’t have taken such a leadership role.  I would have wanted to protect my residents, but we went further than that. We restored the watersheds – we did what would have taken mother nature 100 years to complete.”

She notes that the Coconino Department of Public Works has a significant population of Latino employees and many are active outdoors people. “Latinos have a strong environmental stewardship ethic that’s cultural and generational,” says Archuleta.”  We’ve been stewards of the land for 500 years – we have Hispanic pioneer families that have been here for generations. Recreating in the forest has always been part of the culture. When other people move here they embrace that as well.”  

THE FUTURE

HECHO believes more Latino elected officials should be involved in natural resource and environmental policy efforts. Typically, Latino leaders are directed to education, immigration, social services and health policy. But we need their passion and innate stewardship to lead successful efforts like Archuleta did. Efforts that go above and beyond.

HECHO is the leading organization that supports Latino leaders in their conservation policy efforts and amplifies their voices.  We are working to make sure that these elected officials feel competent and confident in speaking out about environmental issues. That requires education and training.  

We are doing a lot, but we can do more.  When issues arise, we need to create white papers, talking points and connections to nonprofit groups that can support them.  We will continue to make sure that Latino elected officials and government leaders have the resources they need at their fingertips so that they can become champions of these issues and continue to be stewards of the land like our forefathers and foremothers.