Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hope and Ashes

Yesterday smoke choked Portal and the north end of the Chiricahuas. Peg and Reed both attended this morning's briefing, and passed on the information to me. I hope to add to this post a fire map and more detail, but for now will write the gist of the report, while trying not to tinge it with the unease that bubbles up whenever we are even one step removed from the groundtruth of an event.

First the positive news: the burn in South Fork continues to go very well, with a low intensity fire backing down the slopes at those points where it has entered the canyon. Much of the lower portion of South Fork is not yet burning.

In the Middle Fork and main Cave Creek Canyon, crews yesterday laid a blackline 300 feet wide and a mile long, stretching from Pogo Hill to near the Herb Martyr picnic area. Frankly, I'm in awe of the skill it must have taken to lay that line without losing control of it, given the wind that raged yesterday afternoon. Strong, gusty wind caused suspension of air operations for much of the afternoon.

In keeping with the Type 1 teams' strategy of long-range planning whenever possible, structures in Paradise are being prepared to face the fire, and a notice warned residents of Paradise that they may have to evacuate in the next 24 hours. Right now, that notice is precautionary, and Paradise is not yet under immediate threat.

The high country is faring badly. Fire is uncontrolled in the southwest corner of Horseshoe Two. The road into Rustler Park has been closed. We expect Saunders Peak, with its old-growth, high-elevation forest, to burn completely. Historic Cima Cabin, built by the CCC, has been wrapped to try to preserve it. That area will also burn.

Now for the big problem: a major wind event is arriving soon. Winds will come from the southwest and are aligning with a number of important drainages. The firefighters expect to see chimneying firestorms, which will torch entire stands of forest. Conditions will be extremely hazardous for firefighters.

To draw back a bit from that very alarming scenario: Bill Edwards, our District Ranger, applied perspective based on the region's fire history. Dendrochronologists like Tom Swetnam at the University of Arizona have studied fire history as recorded in tree rings. Widespread fires have been the norm during years like this, when a very strong monsoon season is followed by an extremely dry winter. Most of the plant communities are fire-adapted and we expect them to recover, given time.

However, mixed coniferous forest which occupies the most mesic, north-facing slopes of the high Chiricahuas, is not fire-adapted. An event like the Horseshoe Two fire could push that community (and its Mexican Chickadees, Yellow-eyed Juncos, and Red-breasted Nuthatches) right off the mountain top. Time will tell.

Last week, I read one of Tom Swetnam's papers. He noted that, although these plant communities are mostly fire-adapted, the frequency of catastrophic fire that we have been seeing in recent years probably has not been equaled in the previous 400-500 years. As fire-adapted as most of our plants are, they are still being terribly stressed, and fire-sterilized soils do not support much plant life for some time.

A second aspect of the Horseshoe Two fire is unnatural: the timing of the fire. Normally our fires are ignited by lightning just before the rains start, and the monsoon soon extinguishes them. (Swetnam thinks that the earlier role of Native Americans in igniting fires is exaggerated.) This fire, ignited almost certainly by illegal immigrants, came too soon.

Horseshoe Two is already the biggest fire to have burned in the Chiricahuas in historic time. With the coming strong winds, it is going to grow much bigger still. Some of the jewels of the range, such as South Fork, appear to be coming through the crisis in a healthy fashion, and that is very good. Much of the rest is--or will soon be--ashes, to be washed away in the flood events that usually follow catastrophic fire.

What then? Wait, hunkered down in the lee of a boulder, for rain and a rebirth?

When times are grim, I turn to art, remembering Nietzsche's words: "We have art so that we shall not die of reality."


  1. Is there a reference for the cause of the fire? All I can find is an opinion piece written in a political blog and then republished on other websites including the Tucson Citizen.

    Your closing quote is something to remember.

  2. NOAA's weather is online and available at http://www.wunderground.com/wxradio/
    Choose the Safford, Arizona station. This is the same weather information used by local pilots in flight planning and may be of use in monitoring the winds.