On a dry day in May 2002, Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull boarded a Blackhawk helicopter in Show Low with her forest and wildfire advisers and Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
As the chopper flew over the White Mountains, along the Mogollon Rim and on toward Flagstaff, Covington plotted out, with the help of a map and the Blackhawk’s window, five tracts of forest, each about 500,000 acres, mostly ponderosa pines in the higher elevations and piñon pines and juniper trees farther down the slopes.
The first tract was near Show Low and Heber, spreading out onto the nearby White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation. Another was farther east toward Springerville, Greer and Alpine. A third stretched from Payson toward Winslow, a fourth surrounded Prescott, and one more climbed the Rim from Sedona to Flagstaff.
That’s where fires will burn in the next 20 or 30 years, Covington told Hull – big fires like Arizona has never seen. The forests were overgrown, the trees so close together that flames would race up the slopes, over the Rim and into the mountains for thousands of acres until the fuel ran out. The forests needed thinning, Covington argued. Hull, who owned a second home in the White Mountains, agreed and pledged help.
Barely a month later, on June 18, 2002, an out-of-work firefighter lit flames that within hours exploded into the Rodeo Fire and, inside of a week, merged with another to become the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. It raged across 468,638 acres around Show Low and Heber and deep into the Apache reservation, the largest fire on record at the time and almost precisely where Covington had predicted that a fire would erupt.
Nine years after that, the Wallow Fire scorched a record 538,049 acres around Springerville, Greer and Alpine, again within the boundaries Covington had identified from the chopper.
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