Wednesday, June 2, 2010

South Fork Today: the Horseshoe Fire

Last night smoke from the Horseshoe Fire made sleep difficult. When the smoke eased, I slept in––until a phone call from Helen Snyder had me out of bed and out the door in 15 minutes!

We met Jim Payne and Ron Kaczor, both public information officials assigned to the fire, at the Visitor Center in Cave Creek Canyon, and they took Helen and me into South Fork for a firsthand look at fire preparations in that much-loved canyon.

Horseshoe Fire Map, day by day growth

I'll summarize the situation first, then go into details of what we saw. The fire is now backing into the upper reaches of South Fork, its growth slowed by light, upslope wind. Debris fall from burning trees carries it downslope. It is burning into the region above Maple Camp and is expected to reach the canyon bottom by tonight. So far (incredibly, in the view of experts here) flames running into the canyon have only been 6 inches to 3 feet high in most places––perfect for a low-intensity burn. No one expected it to behave as sedately in South Fork as it has thus far done.

Firefighters identified two scree slopes on opposing walls of South Fork and built a fire line between them. They will try to hold the fire at that line, in the upper reaches of the canyon. During the 1994 Rattlesnake Fire, they anchored the fire lines on ridgetops, only to see line after line blown away by that inferno, in a terribly frustrating loss of effort. Helen and I talked to firefighters who had also worked the Rattlesnake, and they said that they had been "well-schooled" by that fire. One laughed and said that he had never wanted to be assigned to the Chiricahuas again because of the exceedingly rugged terrain, and he has refused other assignments here. Yet he's back now, helping in South Fork.

Discussing fire map with Jim Payne & Division subchief
(Photo by Helen Snyder)

As we drove into the main Cave Creek Canyon, we saw where fire crews have been cutting back brush from along the road, for the most part taking small trees and shrubs. Next step is to come through with a big chipper, and to reduce all the cuttings to woodchips, which are left along the roadside.

Preparations at cabin in South Fork (Photo by Narca)

In South Fork, nothing has been "brushed" except in the immediate area of the two cabins just above the bridge. There, trees were left standing, and the undergrowth was completely removed and raked away. Sprinkler systems have been set up around both cabins (as is being done around residences in the main canyon). Otherwise, South Fork––so far––is as it was, a rich tangle of riparian habitat where the calls of nesting trogons echo from the cliff faces.

Fire crews assemble in South Fork (Photo by Narca)

At the trailhead was a fire-jam of firetrucks, firefighters, and safety officers. One was manipulating computer images on a laptop, atop the roof of his truck. His program was the most sophisticated use of Google Earth I've yet seen. There was the terrain around South Fork, with the current fire perimeter and all the technical information about the landscape needed for studying and implementing their strategies.

High-tech fire-fighting, with Helen Snyder looking on 
(Photo by Narca)

Showing the crew a trogon nest 
(Photo by Helen Snyder)

Trogons are exerting their charm over the workers here. A male repeatedly landed on one of the picnic tables, in full view of crews assembling in South Fork early this morning. Several of the firefighters trailed after us to look at a nearby trogon nest. They wanted to hear about the richness of the canyon and the factors that create its high diversity. Our community is tremendously grateful for their hard work.

Portal-style fire command center (Photo by Narca)

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