Friday, June 10, 2011

Homecoming to the Horseshoe Two Fire

Yesterday evening as we dropped down Granite Gap into the San Simon Valley, plumes of smoke still churned from the Chiricahua Mountains. Homecoming is bittersweet.

Smoke from Whitetail Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains
(Photos by Narca)

Horseshoe Two continues to surge north and west, driven by erratic––and sometimes unpredicted––winds. Crews have come to expect the unexpected: wind blows when little wind was forecast. Fire burns into the wind as well as with it. Steep terrain is crisscrossed by canyons which suck wind into the inferno, against the direction of prevailing winds. Fire can sprout anywhere as it spots up to 2 miles away from the body of the fire, creating very dangerous conditions for the firefighters.

In Whitetail Canyon, whirling fire jumped the line and destroyed some residences and outbuildings. The sheriff is in the process of contacting our neighbors who suffered that loss. Among those whose homes are safe are Rick and Lynne Taylor, Jim Brown, and Tom and Debbie Collazo. Wynne Brown lost her hay barn, but her home and other structures are intact. (She very characteristically saw a positive angle: the barn wasn't big enough anyway!)

Breach of the fire line means that crews have to drop back to the next defensible place, shown by dotted lines on today's fire map. The new goal in the north is to prevent Horseshoe Two from reaching Fort Bowie National Historical Site. The fire is burning into Chiricahua National Monument, and work continues there with the goal of protecting both the monument's resources and its structures. The fire's growth potential remains extreme, and the difficulty of the terrain is still extreme.

Fire map for the 10 June 2011 briefing

This fire is setting new local records right and left, not only in sheer size (now estimated at 128,652 acres), but also in categories such as low fuel moisture. Fuel that would be expected to burn for 10 hours before drying out is instead drying in a single hour. That is extreme. The overall burn index is 95%: this measurement is the ignition probability with wind factored in. So a spark falling on fuel would ignite fire 95 times out of 100. That is extreme. Many of the indices used by firefighters are at an all-time high for this locale, the Chiricahua Mountains.

While we are focused on our local inferno and damage here, the national media is focused on the Wallow Fire burning in the White Mountains, where similarly extreme conditions apply. As of June 10, the Wallow has burned 408,887 acres, mainly in pine forest, and is only 5% contained. Of more than 4,000 residences, 67 have been lost.

A third big Arizona fire, the Murphy Complex, is burning east of Arivaca and west of Tubac. It is moving through grass, shrub and oak habitats, has consumed 68,033 acres, and is now 75% contained.

Given the extreme dryness and unusually windy conditions, it has not been possible simply to extinguish these raging fires. The fire crews have instead had to use all their skill to moderate the fires wherever possible. When the fire jumps lines, control is lost and a much more severe burn results. Where it has been possible to moderate the fires' intensity, a mosaic burn is being achieved. The burn in South Fork was reportedly well-controlled and moderate. Elsewhere, crown fires are causing replacement of entire stands of forest.

One of the major fears about climate change in the Southwest is that forest types such as spruce-fir which need moister conditions will be driven completely off the tops of the mountains. We will lose those refugia and the animals and plants tied to those communities, and thus suffer a loss of richness, a loss of biological wealth.

I have heard scientists' predictions about the changes in store for the Southwest, and about fire being a mechanism for bringing about those changes. But somehow I didn't expect it to happen all at once, in a few short months. Most of us aren't geared to accept drastic change at the speed of light.

Faced with change and crisis, most of us grieve what is lost. We rage. Acting from anger, we assign blame. In the midst of our reactions, we need to be sure that any blame is correctly assigned. It is very difficult to know with 100% certainty who set these fires. (In the case of the Wallow Fire, the cause is thought to be an escaped campfire.) However, authorities do need to recognize the communities' frustration with the matter of designating a cause. On the one hand, the responsible individual may never be known. On the other hand, an employee of the Coronado National Forest told a Portal resident this spring that 12 of the last 18 fires in the Chiricahuas were set by illegal immigrants. By that accounting, Horseshoe Two is fire number 19, and circumstantial evidence points to that same origin. Yet no official statement ever supports what we are told unofficially. That dissonance breeds trouble.

I agree with Rick Taylor that one way to prevent many of these fires is to institute a good workers' program that allows people to enter the country legally for a specified amount of time in order to work. With a legal program in place, participating workers would avoid the hazards of illegal entry, and many fewer people would seek a way through these mountains. And a hypothetical 12 of the next 18 fires might be prevented.

Although most of the community is solidly supportive and appreciative of all that is being done to help, I have come home to find talk of conspiracies between Border Patrol and firefighting agencies. Seeing conspiracy is usually delusional and paranoid. But given the lack of real political discourse, and the use of anything to further a political agenda, the current mistrust of agencies is not surprising. People caught in the middle react, sometimes without logic or solid judgment. We need to rein ourselves in, stay as balanced and calm as possible. Long sieges are very wearing.

The fire crews are willing to face firestorms with the intention of salvaging what can be saved from incineration. They are operating with complete transparency, as anyone who attends the briefings can judge. Blaming the fire-fighting tactics for causing additional damage shows a lack of understanding of what is needed to moderate (and ultimately, contain) the fires during this season of extremes. And to the fire team: if we need to learn more about the rationale behind the strategies in play, please educate us. Knowing more helps to dispel ungrounded fear. (The well-grounded fears are bad enough!)

1 comment:

  1. Another well reasoned post, thank you. I agree that knowledge is power and educating everyone can provide common ground when facing events such as this fire. Finding common ground becomes even more important when nerves are frayed and emotions run high. Opinions will always differ but maintaining composure in the face of adversity is a hallmark of a rational mind.