Thursday, June 3, 2010

Now We Wait

Last night's fire update in the Portal Rescue classroom was again a valuable exercise in explaining what has been accomplished toward containing the fire, and what we can anticipate. PortaleƱos packed the place, listened, asked questions, and aired concerns.

So far, the fire in South Fork continues to burn at the desired low intensity. Most of the canopy within the burned area of South Fork is still intact. Fire is just reaching the canyon bottom in the vicinity of Maple Camp and higher. We are moving beyond the first big hurdle in what promises to be a month-long crisis. A containment date has been set for mid-June; however we are cautioned that a containment date and a controlled date are not the same. A contained fire has the management plan well in place and holding, but it is not yet controlled.

The fire has not been spreading south of the main burn during the past day or two.

A new, more elaborate fire map added a major feature to the now-familiar fire perimeter (which currently encompasses 37,000 acres) and to the updated extent of the burn: now the map includes a number of interior lines, each labeled as a "MAP" or Management Action Point. (We labored through a lot of acronyms tonight!) A MAP is a trigger point. When the fire reaches that position, it triggers a cascade of new management decisions and actions, all determined by the fire's behavior at that time. Actions may include running a new fire model, encouraging more low-intensity burning, and/or evacuating residents in different parts of Cave Creek Canyon.

Many residents were encouraged that the village of Portal now lies just outside the projected fire perimeter line. We are cautioned that smoke from the fire is expected to get worse, especially as it draws closer to town and as it makes any uphill runs. During the recent period of low-intensity burn, we've seen little smoke.

Any action the crew takes will depend upon the fire's behavior and the type of habitat fueling it: oak habitat is handled differently from pine. Does that fine a level of management imply that we can control this thing? As long as the wind behaves, and other variables fall into place... that's what we're led to believe.

Tonight the crews will begin to employ a new tactic: dropping "ping-pong balls" from a helicopter to set fire along certain ridgelines, ahead of the main fire. (In fire parlance, a "ping-pong ball" is a PSD... no, that doesn't help... a Plastic Sphere Dispenser... or was that a DAID, a Delayed Aerial Ignition Device?)

Whatever you call it, the idea is to slow the fire's advance, to keep it burning at a low intensity by starting another fire ahead of it. Fire on a ridge backs down into canyons much more slowly, in contrast to the blast of higher-intensity fire that often happens when it burns uphill. Burning at night when temperatures are cooler, humidity higher, and winds calmer, also encourages a low-intensity burn. So now that the fire is reaching the bottom of South Fork, the goal tonight is to burn ahead of the fire on the opposite ridge, anticipating the fire's run uphill, to try to keep a low-intensity fire going on the further, western side of South Fork canyon, too.

Paul Hirt spoke to the benefits of this fire, if crews are able to maintain a low-intensity burn. He's right. We've had 100 years of fire suppression and fuel build-up, and as long as this continues to be handled skillfully and if the wind continues to cooperate, the habitat stands to benefit considerably in the long term. Once it's behind us, the longer-term prospects for a catastrophic fire are diminished.

Biologists from the Forest Service expressed hope that most tree-nesting birds will survive the burn. Although they didn't mention ground-nesting species like Painted Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers, those are obviously much more vulnerable; however most adult birds should be able to move out of harm's path. Special care is being taken around the known nest territories of Spotted Owls (another acronym cropped up here––you really don't want to know).

Spotted Owl (Pen and ink by Narca)

We're walking a fine balance, and so far, so good. Most preparations are in place, and now we wait.

Glenn Klingler is still considering running the near-annual trogon census about the third weekend in June, but that is entirely dependent on the fire's behavior then. Public safety will be the paramount factor.

The community gives its hearty thanks to everyone working so hard on the Horseshoe Fire and our best wishes for a speedy recovery to the two firefighters who were injured while working the firelines, and who were airlifted to Tucson. I hear that a new sign has gone up in town, complete with balloons, expressing those thanks. (Delane, did I get that right? Balloons? Ribbons? Colored flagging, such as has appeared on various street signs and structures around the canyon?). The fire team also very sincerely thanked District Ranger Bill Edwards and the other employees of Coronado National Forest for their big help and cooperation, saying that such cooperation isn't always forthcoming.

(A note to Hizzoner the Mayor––a.k.a. Howard Topoff: after seeing up close how a real government agency functions, I don't think we have enough acronyms in Portal.)

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