Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Horseshoe Fire

All of my fellow Portaleños, as well as the birding community, are following closely the development of the Horseshoe Fire, here in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. As of Saturday night, May 29, just over 1200 acres have burned in the heart of the Chiricahua Wilderness.

Horseshoe Fire at 2 AM, May 30, a 30-second exposure 
(Photos by Steve Cullen/Light Buckets)
And a 10-second exposure, both taken 10 miles from the fire

At last night's community meeting, fire supervisors told us that this promises to be a very difficult, very large fire, which will most likely burn until the monsoon rains arrive. If the fire burns to the perimeter line that firefighters hope to establish, it will be as large as 35,000 - 40,000 acres. (For comparison, the huge 1994 Rattlesnake Fire, which burned for a month, covered 29,000 acres.)

A team specializing in Type 1 fires––the most challenging––is here with 700 firefighters, including 19 Hot Shot teams. In all of the US there are 100 Hot Shot teams, so the commitment of nearly 20% of the nation's most proficient fighters of wildland fires indicates how seriously the fire experts are regarding the Horseshoe Fire. The Type 1 team here in Portal also responded to 9/11 in New York City.

The combination of terrain, fuel load and weather conditions makes this fire so difficult to handle––in the US, the fire supervisors told us, the Chiricahuas present as rugged a terrain as it's possible to find.

Fire perimeters have to be drawn so that the segments all connect to ring the fire. Given our rough terrain, it was impossible to make the perimeter any smaller. In steep, narrow canyons, flaming brands "jump" from one side of the canyon to the other, and so, in that situation, fire defeats all efforts to contain it.

Even after our good winter rains and snow pack, the moisture load of down fuels––logs etc––is low at only 6%. (Lumber for building usually has twice that moisture content.) However, the living trees are well hydrated and should withstand fire better than is often the case here. We hope to see a mostly low-intensity, mosaic burn which would benefit the habitat. We fear a high-intensity, stand-replacing, uncontrollable conflagration.

Fire supervisors see no way of keeping the fire out of South Fork, a major branch of Cave Creek Canyon renowned for its extraordinary biodiversity. To lower the impact, firefighters will concentrate on manipulating the fire when possible to lower its intensity, and thus avoid as much as possible the catastrophic, stand-replacing holocaust we experienced with the Rattlesnake (when fire burned from Methodist Camp all the way to the top at Rustler Park in 2 to 3 hours). Another goal is to protect the old growth riparian corridor along South Fork. Team members are very aware of its high biological value.

The fire investigators told us that the Horseshoe Fire was human-caused, and that it is virtually certain that illegal immigrants are responsible, once again. It began at Burro Springs, near the ridge between Horseshoe and South Fork Canyons. Deep frustrations were expressed at the meeting over the entire situation involving both illegal immigration and drug smuggling, and the suffering experienced by the border communities, which bear the brunt of a failed immigration policy and of the passage of many thousands of illegal entrants, in the form of fire ignitions, damage to pristine habitats, home break-ins, assaults, ambushes between rival cartels, and one recent murder. But that is another subject indeed....

Portal itself, while located right on the fire perimeter line, is in no imminent danger. Unfortunately, all of the homes up canyon from Portal fall inside the perimeter. For the moment, the American Museum of Natural History's Southwest Research Station is not in danger. Much depends on what the winds do during this coming month or two, and upon when the rains come––if they come. (Last year the monsoon essentially didn't come, and summer drought was intense.)

Two nights ago I drove with Gary Rosenberg and his group to go owling in the high Chiricahuas. Returning from Onion Saddle, we were sobered and deeply impressed by the expanse of twinkling hotspots spread beneath us, where trees stood as torches in the night, and the full moon rode above the wrack of smoke. Sleeping was difficult for me that night. It is hard to see this treasured canyon go through a crisis of these proportions, and to know that the research station and so many homes (including our own) are under threat. Yesterday as we helped friends to evacuate their cabin above the research station, a pair of Elegant Trogons was coming and going from their nest cavity, their home also in grave danger.

Elegant Trogon in South Fork (Watercolor by Narca)

My sadness lifted a little when I remembered a grassland fire that Alan and I helped to fight in 1992 on the Gray Ranch. After the fire was under control, I walked back through smoking stubs of bunch grasses, and a single Grasshopper Sparrow hopped up onto a still-smoldering grass-snag in the midst of the black desolation, and began to sing.

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