Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Hard Wind

I've been encouraged by reports in the past few days that intensity of the Horseshoe Two Fire burning in the Chiricahuas has, for the most part, been carefully managed to achieve a low-to-moderate burn in many of our most treasured locales. The balance between a controlled and a rampant fire, between hope and fear, between panic and calm, has been delicate. The skills of the Type 1 teams and all the support staff have been pitted against the exceedingly dry conditions--and the wind. Always the wind.

Reed Peters reports that today's briefing to the firefighters was more somber than most, because of the danger posed by today's continuing strong wind. It is expected to blow from the southwest at 15-25 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph.

Fire Map on 30 May 2011 (Photos by Wynne Brown)

The main concern is holding the fire line between Saulsbury Saddle and West Turkey Creek, so that it doesn't jump into Pinery Canyon or Whitetail Canyon. One Whitetail resident, Wynne, was cautioned that Whitetail may have to be evacuated if the fire breaches Saulsbury Saddle. In addition, should that happen, the burn size could be as large as 100,000 acres. (Right now it stands at about 60,000 acres.)

High winds will ground even the big helicopters, thus hampering efforts to hold the fire line.

Detail of the Saulsbury Saddle-West Turkey Creek area

Reed writes, "The constant smoke in Portal has been an added factor to everyone's unease. Most nights this past week there was an inversion, with the smoke lying thick in the canyon during the night, and lifting somewhat during the day."

If the fire can be held today, the next few days are forecast to be calmer, so we should get some respite.

The ranchers say that a windy spring is forerunner to a summer monsoon, rather than summer drought. If that truism holds, and the amount of wind is any indication, the monsoon of 2011 should be a humdinger.

A post script: the fire lines held, even with wind gusting in excess of 45 mph! Very good.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Take Heart!

Reed Peters called today with encouraging news about the Horseshoe 2 Fire burning in the Chiricahuas. Dugger Hughes and members of his Type One team feel that they have turned the corner, and are able now to actively manage the fire, instead of just reacting to its twists and turns. That is especially good news in the light of the continuing strong, gusty winds.

Most of the perimeter lines are finished, and ongoing burnouts are moderating the fire's intensity. Lines and burnouts have been holding, even in the high wind. The fire team is cautiously optimistic.

Today South Fork was again an area of concern, as a hotspot there suddenly flared and ignited the opposite slope. Resources were again focused there today to protect this critically important riparian habitat. A burnout is planned for Wednesday at the junction of South Fork and the main Cave Creek Canyon, as well as south of the research station.

Firefighters are continuing to monitor areas like Paradise very closely.

The next major priority will be the southern edge of the active fire, still backing into Rucker and Price Canyons, and expected to burn all the way to Highway 80. Buck Wickham estimated that 60-70% of the fire burning in the trees is doing so at a low intensity, achieving a beneficial burn. That news is good indeed.

The area burned stands at over 44,000 acres.

838 firefighters and support staff are now working on Horseshoe 2--and we thank each one of you! You are doing a magnificent job under very difficult conditions.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


My effort to learn more about the current state of the fire from the information officers brought only this pablum:

"Our efforts continue to focus on providing for pubic and firefighter safety and minimizing resource impacts where we can do so safely and effectively."

More will come when I actually learn something!

Friday, May 20, 2011

From Afar

It has been unsettling trying to keep abreast of the fire news from several states away! As we drove east, smoke followed us deep into New Mexico, until night covered all.

Peg Abbott, Carol Simon and Richard Webster have all published various reports on last night's community meeting. In short, the Horseshoe 2 Fire will be with us until the monsoon rains come. Given the speed and intensity with which it can spread when wind-driven, that is a very alarming prospect.

Burnout operations are being prepared in Rucker Canyon, to try to moderate the fire's intensity. However, from there the fire is likely to burn all the way to Highway 80, the highway that runs south to Douglas.

In the high country, the area burned in the 1994 Rattlesnake Fire is burning again. All of the standing dead snags will be removed when next we are able to return to tha Rustler Park road. That grim reminder of the old fire will be gone, but we'll have plenty of new reminders, and there will be plenty of new snags to be used by nesting bluebirds (when their foraging habitat recovers to the point of allowing their return).

News continues to be good for the burn's progress in South Fork and Cave Creek Canyon. A second blackline is planned for the Herb Martyr area.

The next Type 1 fire team is due to rotate in very soon. The community sends its heartfelt thanks to the people who have been working so hard on behalf of the Chiricahua Mountains and the communities clustered at its feet. We also welcome old friends back to the community: Dugger Hughes was the incident commander who, with his Type 1 team, saw us through a critical period of last year's Horseshoe Fire.

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."

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Burn-out in Cave Creek Canyon

At this morning's briefing, the fire crews were told that the burn-out operation in the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon is proceeding so far at a low intensity. That is very good news.

After the briefing, with smoke from Horseshoe Two Fire
(Photos by Narca)

Right now our weather is transitioning from a high pressure system (with mild wind) to a major deep pressure system, now building in the Pacific Northwest. As that low pressure system moves across to the north of us, it will bring high winds again. So the crews are doing everything they can in the next two days to accomplish a low-intensity burn-out in critical habitats, before the wind can once again control what happens on the Horseshoe Two fire. The relatively light winds today are predicted for about 10 mph, with gusts to 25 or 30 mph. Winds continue to blow mainly from the southwest.

On the day of origin, Horseshoe Two ran north for about 7 miles during a single day, while in the grip of high winds. Right now the fire is about 2 miles from reaching the American Museum of Natural History's Southwest Research Station. The distance seems small to me (after seeing just what this fire did on the first day!), but the difference now is that the fire teams are in place and actively controlling the intensity and speed of the fire.

Fire map for May 16

Yesterday a team working in the Herb Martyr area found a more direct checkline that they can use to moderate the fire. Repellant has been laid, and preparations continue today to back the fire into the basin. A backing fire burns moderately, with mostly low flame height, and achieves a beneficial burn. A fire rushing uphill is much more extreme and can torch entire stands of trees. So the crews are backing fire into South Fork and into the main Cave Creek Canyon. So far, so good. If work goes as planned, the backburn from the research station area may be lit off tonight.

Today's major operations. Red dots are hotspots. Purple dots were hotspots, now cold.

Conditions remain very dry, and last night there was only a poor recovery of relative humidity, to about 15-16% overnight. It will be back in the single digits today. The fire behavior specialist exclaimed today that this fire continues to surprise him by the way it is following grass fuels, no matter what the wind does. This is anomalous behavior, due to the extreme dryness of fuels. Today's probability of ignition will range from around 80% when cloud cover is present, to 100% when the clouds burn off. (That is the measure of how likely a fire brand is to ignite more fire, should it land on fuel.) This anomalous behavior increases the risk to firefighters.

To the north, east, and south, the fire perimeter is holding very well and getting cold. The burn-out to Horseshoe Canyon road has been completed and the fire team is happy with how it went. Patrols check these areas regularly.

The black borders on this map are considered secure.

Most of the fire activity continues to be in the western region. Aerial ignition will continue along ridges in the vicinity of the fire's spread, to slow it by creating fires that back down the ridges to meet the main fire. Terrain in the high country is very difficult to work from the ground, so air operations are focused there. Snowshed Peak has burned, and the fire has not yet reached Chiricahua Peak.

Teams will be visiting Paradise today and evaluating the readiness of homes there, in case the fire gets away from us during the next high winds.

The statistics are these: 26,502 acres burned; 20% containment so far; 630 people working with the fire crews; and a total of $4.4 million spent so far.

A newspaper article which ran yesterday in a Tucson paper's online edition stated unequivocally that illegal immigrants started the Horseshoe Two fire. Apparently Border Patrol agents had tracked four illegal aliens to the point of origin of the fire. Much of the article was biased, but the assertion is correct that the fire was checked from burning into Portal on the first day by the large, heavily-grazed pasture of the Three Triangle Ranch, although the bulldozer line put in by the fire crew also was important. I walked part of the bulldozer line, and it is obvious that part of the fire stopped there.

My reporting on this blog is going to change after today. Alan and I are leaving for a trip to Eastern habitats. Raymond VanBuskirk will stay in our home while we are gone, and he, Peg Abbott, and Reed Peters will continue to attend the early morning briefings whenever possible, and send new information that I can post when internet connections allow. You will be treated to new perspectives on events here. I, however, won't have the same personal grasp on developments that comes from attending the meetings and observing firsthand how well a really skilled, professional fire team handles a crisis like this one. Together with my friends, we'll do our best to keep everyone informed.

Leaving right now is very difficult, yet I do need to get out of the smoke, and we have been planning to see faraway friends and family for some time. We are, at least, leaving the outcome in good hands.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Better Scenario

At tonight's public meeting, those gathered received a realistic appraisal of the current state of the Horseshoe Two fire, with an emphasis on how it can work if everything goes right.

As I said in an earlier post, the term "burn-out" is scary. And a burn-out is planned for South Fork and a portion of Cave Creek Canyon, as far down the canyon's north-facing slope as the main road. However, it is not a question of lighting a new fire that will rush upslope to meet the one now burning down. The Type 1 team's full skill is being directed at controlling the intensity of the fire and setting up checkpoints where the possibility exists to limit its spread.

Here is how that strategy is being applied in South Fork: the crews first laid down retardant where they wanted to limit the fire's spread, and then lit a fire along the unburned ridge above South Fork, opposite the burned slope. The newly set fire then burned slowly downhill and met the upcoming fire. After a day or two of applying this strategy, a mostly beneficial burn is being achieved in upper South Fork. We don't yet know the final outcome, but so far the plan is working in that spot.

South Fork is being burned out, but every attempt is being made to keep the burn at as low an intensity as possible.

Smoke from South Fork at sunset, May 15
(Photo by Narca)

The next step being prepared is aimed at checking the fire at the research station in Cave Creek Canyon. Lines are being laid, but it is too soon to light a backfire there just yet. First the fire burning towards Cave Creek has to get close enough that the backfire doesn't cause more problems than it solves when it is lit. So at the moment teams are waiting in that region until they judge the balance to be just right for meeting the oncoming fire. The backfiring could happen as soon as tomorrow, depending on developments.

The teams are under pressure to accomplish as much as possible before the next bouts of strong wind arrive. We've gained a little purchase here: the high winds originally predicted for Monday are now expected on Wednesday, so we've been gifted two extra days before the wind could again gust to 45 mph.

That is a quick update. I plan to attend tomorrow morning's briefing to the fire crews as well, and will photograph the most recent fire map for you.

Sobering Times

O'Leary, remember when the drought a few years back was especially intense, and you organized a rain dance among the ladies of Portal and Rodeo... and it rained? We really, really need another rain dance.

My dear friends, my community, as you will hear at this evening's 6 PM meeting at the Rodeo Community Center, the fire has progressed to a very serious turning point, triggering a shift in strategy among the firefighters. Horseshoe 2 has crossed the bottom of South Fork and is now burning uphill toward the Herb Martyr Road, the Southwest Research Station, and Cave Creek Canyon. Firefighters have retrenched, and the new checkline along this northwest fire perimeter will be the road through Cave Creek Canyon.

Fire Map at crew briefing on May 15, 2011

With the exceedingly dry fuels and winds predicted from the southwest, blowing steadily at about 10 mph and gusting to 25 mph, there is little hope of stopping the fire before Cave Creek Canyon. Our best hope lies in slowing the fire's advance and in reducing its intensity through very careful, very patient back-burning. This back-firing will be happening today in the Herb Martyr area and possibly in Cave Creek Canyon. (I wasn't clear about when the Cave Creek Canyon portion of the blacklining will begin.) All homes within the threatened area have protection in place.

Detail of fire map at crew briefing on May 15, 2011

From the main Cave Creek Canyon road, the firefighters will attempt (against the wind) to deflect the fire from the lower canyon and into the high country, to keep it away from Portal. They will also attempt to hold the fire along a ridge coming off Centella Peak, in order to keep it out of the East Turkey Creek drainage.

Positive accomplishment can be reported from the southern perimeter, where partial burn-outs north of Horseshoe Canyon Road continue to be conducted, and that line has been holding. More remains to be done, and crews hope to have a chance to do more firing there tonight, before wind strengthens again on Monday. The eastern perimeter and northernmost boundary remain secure.

The current plan is to hold the fire south of the Cave Creek Canyon road, east of Chiricahua Peak, north of Horseshoe Canyon Road, and west of State Line Road.

The community may be facing more evacuations in upper Cave Creek Canyon over the next few days, particularly around the research station. I expect that matter will be addressed at this evening's meeting. Hold together, everyone. If you are in the area now threatened, please be prepared to leave, taking your animals, your valuable papers and computer, any irreplaceable pictures, and prescriptions. If you need help or feel overwhelmed, please let others know. We'll take care of each other, and pull through this.

Today's numbers: 22,110 acres burned; 20% containment; 614 people working on the fire; no structures lost; 3 injuries, 2 of them apparently sprained ankles.

Expect the fire behavior to be very active today and tomorrow. It's a time of testing for us. Reach out if you need to.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Progress on Horseshoe 2 Fire

[If you've noticed that a couple of my most recent posts have disappeared, it is because Google's blogging platform was compromised, and has been out of commission for about a day. I'm hoping that the missing posts will reappear soon.]

Last night the most obvious (and spectacular) development in the Horseshoe Two fire happened along the south part of the eastern perimeter, where crews burned out land between Owl Butte Road and the oncoming fire. (Local residents who were blanketed in smoke, take heart: there was a bonus in addition to protection. Your road, at least, is now graded!) Results were excellent, and the eastern and northern areas of the fire perimeter are no longer considered dangerous. Today teams will be mopping up there, patrolling and extinguishing hot spots.

Alicia and Tom Davidson, and their mini-horses, live in the back-burned area. They reported a frightening night of fire, but also found the firefighters to be very professional and skilled, to the extent that they were even able to sleep once everything was underway.

A map of the Horseshoe 2 Fire on May 13, showing how it dwarfs and has curled around last year's Horseshoe Fire.

The most active and most worrisome corner continues to be in the southwest: holding it is key to holding the fire, and it is now the number one priority. Part of that corner (upper South Fork) fronts against the 1994 Rattlesnake burn, and a combination of the old burn and high cliffs are holding that edge rather well. But the fire is trying to spread south and west from the old burn, in country that is exceedingly difficult to enter. Today while the wind is calm and air support can be used, the fire team is dropping water there to slow the spread. You can see the critical points on this map.

Detail of fire map on May 13, 2011

Another worry is the finger of fire reaching into upper South Fork (indicated on the map above, "Major effort here too"). A crew hiked into South Fork yesterday to reconnoiter, and today they will anchor a line between two cliffs to attempt to stop that advance.

Along Horseshoe Canyon Road, crews will continue to build fire lines today and to prepare for burning from the road and fire lines, back to the spreading fire, to contain it there at the southern perimeter.

Up in the northwest, fire is slowly backing down into Cave Creek Canyon at Cathedral Rock, but it has not yet reached the point where it can be dealt with directly.

As for the numbers, 14,700 acres are estimated to have burned so far, and containment stands at 15%. 602 people have now come to join the effort. Today in the air attack, two heavy water tankers are on loan from Ft. Huachuca. In addition, 2 light, 2 medium and 3 heavy helicopters are working.

Bill Edwards, USFS District Ranger, addresses the firefighters 
(Photos by Narca)

Bill Edwards, the Douglas District Ranger for the Coronado National Forest, talked to the fire crews at this morning's briefing about the biological value of what they are fighting to save. Initially the focus was on saving homes and the village of Portal, as the greatest threat loomed there. Now that the public is relatively safe, and the fire has entered deeper into the Chiricahuas, the focus has shifted to minimizing the damage that this fire could do to the rich biodiversity. Bill spoke to the firefighters of the biological significance of the Chiricahua Mountains, of the high density of nesting raptors here, of the rare plant and animal communities, "so that you will know what you are fighting for." That biodiversity is also a primary economic base for communities in southeast Arizona.

Fire is a natural element in the local ecology. What isn't natural is the frequency of unseasonal, human-caused, catastrophic fire we've been experiencing. I've been researching fire ecology and adaptations to fire, and want to get into that in a later post. But for now, one tidbit of information lightens my heart: Arizona Madrone is indeed fire-adapted. Many of the burned madrone trees should root-sprout after fire. So although we may have lost some magnificent old-growth madrones when the north face of Portal Peak (behind my home) burned a few days ago, at least some of them should survive. It may be a few years before they bear berries again, but eventually Portal Peak will once more have food in the autumn for trogons and Eared Quetzals. (It was here that we found the only Eared Quetzal to be recorded so far on a US Christmas Bird Count, back in the winter of 1999-2000.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

PortaleƱos Come Home

Overall, the news about the Horseshoe Two Fire is positive. Threat to the Portal area of the Chiricahua Mountains has lessened to the point that residents were allowed to return home this morning. We have all been unloading and unpacking!

Wind has subsided greatly, aiding firefighters today in their efforts to control the conflagration, estimated at this morning's briefing to be 10% contained.

The greatest fire activity now is at the southern perimeter, where fire has crossed south of the road into Horseshoe Canyon. Today's milder winds are predicted to come from the west, a shift in direction, and to gust up to 20 mph at the peaks, a big improvement over the past two days. A concern voiced this morning was that westerly wind could push the southeastern perimeter into grassy lowlands, a very "flashy" fuel type, and create another strong run of fire. Hence, preparations are underway in that area to build fire lines, including back-burning if possible into the oncoming fire, to create a fire line that will hold.

On the western perimeter, fire was rolling downhill into Cave Creek Canyon between Cathedral Rock and Skull Rock, and the fire crew today set out to anchor a fireline between those two sheer cliffs, to prevent (we all hope) further incursion into Cave Creek Canyon.

After this dry winter, the moisture content of both dead and live fuels is very low, and probability of ignition is estimated at 85%. So far about 10,000 acres have burned.

Tonight a formal briefing is scheduled for 6 PM Arizona time at the Rodeo Community Center.

Our friends in Rodeo have really come through, showing great kindness and hospitality to all of us evacuees. Izzy and Ramon Escobar, Izzy's sister, and other Rodeo folk have manned the Rodeo Community Center's evacuation center and cooked all the food given to people who sought refuge from the fire. Izzy said that they never had to ask for any supplies, because donations began to arrive immediately from all over the region, without anyone's asking. The Food Basket, an organization in the Sulphur Springs Valley, provided us with ample food. The American Red Cross provided cots and bedding. And our good friends in Rodeo provided the labor, the organizational skills, and many, many offers of spare beds. Thank you so very much! Those tasty meals and cozy beds kept us going, and your concern and camaraderie met a different kind of need.

Although the threat here at the north end of the fire is now much less, the fire is far from over, and people living in other parts of the Chiricahuas (indeed, in the entire Southwest) may still face the situation we have just come through. And our firefighters are still fighting a very dangerous fire.

Here at the northern perimeter, the bulldozer operator and his crew, who put in the fire line 1/3 mile above our home and the Luckadoo's, did so in the midst of raging fire and high wind. They carefully judged just when the dozer could plow a little further, and then quickly pulled him back whenever gusts of high wind brought a surge of flame too close. This is dangerous work. Only the willingness of these firefighters to put themselves in peril saved our homes. They are continuing to work on this very treacherous Horseshoe Two Fire... and this is just the beginning of what has already been an exceedingly volatile fire season throughout the Southwest.

How can we possibly thank them for what they are willing to do to help other people and to safeguard as much as possible our greatly treasured landscapes like the Chiricahuas, teeming with wildlife?

You will never hear it officially, but the origin of this Horseshoe Two Fire and last year's Horseshoe Fire is identical, near Burro Springs, along a trail frequented by illegal immigrants and drug runners--and only rarely by hikers. So when, exactly, are we going to solve our immigration problems?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What Today Brings

Today has been busy--apologies for the delay in posting!

Like other friends who are having nightmares about the Horseshoe Two fire, I woke with a searing mental image of our house, engulfed in flames. That worry, fortunately, was far from reality. Last night's very cool, calmer weather dampened fire activity considerably, and when I rushed outside at dawn, the Chiricahuas, viewed from Rodeo, lay serene in the dawnlight, no longer smoke-shrouded.

John Roser and I attended this morning's briefing to the fire teams. Yesterday's accomplishments included work to clear the fire lines which had been established during last year's Horseshoe One fire, plus hand work to establish fire lines deemed the most urgent. High winds limited use of aviation, although some drops of water and slurry occurred before they had to be discontinued. (A big orange patch decorates the hillside just behind our house.) Very importantly, a bulldozer cut a line just above the Luckadoo's and our houses, and that line stopped the fire spread, likely saving our homes and those of other people living below us. (The fire came within about a quarter-mile of our place.)

At the briefing, the meteorologist predicted a "red flag" day, from noon till about 7 PM. Winds were expected to be similar to yesterday's, with gusts up to 50 mph. And it is indeed windy, but up until now it has seemed slightly calmer (but windy now!).

Today's major concerns are two: the fire is very close to wrapping around the southern end of last year's Horseshoe Fire. Teams will attempt to prevent that. Should it happen, South Fork and all of Cave Creek Canyon would be extremely vulnerable.

The second major vulnerability is the north edge, close to Portal, and resources will be focused there as well. During the day today, that region has looked reassuring.

The western edge of the active fire is being held by a combination of last year's burn and the rocky cliffs. The eastern edge, fronting Rodeo and the San Simon Valley, is less worrisome because the fuels are substantially less. The goal is to hold that line at State Line Road, with protection of course for all structures west of that line.

I have a photo of this morning's fire map and will post it as soon as I can get to a computer besides the iPad! It shows the new fire, after little more than a day, dwarfing last year's Horseshoe Fire, which burned under much wetter conditions for weeks! This map has also been posted at local information centers, such as the board at the Portal Store.

After the outcome of today's strong winds is known, the recommended evacuation will be re-evaluated. Stay safe, everyone!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The First of Many Meetings

At tonight's meeting with the Forest Service and firefighters from the Type 1 fire team, the Rodeo-Portal community learned the team's current basic strategy for dealing with the Horseshoe Two fire. This fire is a handful, as many are proving to be across the West, where extremely dry and windy conditions prevail. In one day, Horseshoe Two has burned about as much ground as last year's Horseshoe Fire accomplished in weeks. That is an astonishing contrast.

Last night as Alan and I loaded our two vehicles with our most valued items, the fire lit the night so that I did not need a flashlight to avoid rattlesnakes, and the fire roared constantly in the background. (Miles away in Rodeo, DiAnn Matteson was also hearing that roar.)

Given the active fire behavior and erratic winds gusting up to 50 mph, the firefighters' professionalism and hard work is already striking: they were able to restrain the fire's movement today along the active eastern and northern perimeters, and so far have protected the homes in the fire's path (ours being one of them). Considering the extreme conditions, they did remarkably well.

Along the fire's western edge it is burning into last year's burn, and that is slowing it down, so that it has stayed thus far along the crest. Although flames were visible from the research station, it did not move into Cave Creek Canyon today. Because of the previous burn and current wind direction, the eastern and northern edges are the most active fronts for the moment.

Tomorrow we face another day of high winds. If that challenge can be successfully met, the next few days should give us a bit of a break as the wind lessens.

Neighbors are helping each other, offering a place to stay to evacuees, being sure that those less able to deal with hauling belongings are secure. A heartfelt thanks to all for your generosity and hospitality, and to the emergency teams who are steering us skillfully through rough days.

If I learn more at tomorrow's briefing, I'll add another post. We in the Chiricahuas appreciate all the concern being expressed by the larger community... and we certainly empathize with other communities across the West who are facing what may be the most extreme fire season in memory.

Horseshoe 2 Report

After thinking the fire was so far away, we got a midnight call to evacuate, at first said to be mandatory where we live a couple of miles from Portal. (Actually, Arizona does not have mandatory evacuations.) People in Portal proper received the same call about 3 AM. Fire fighters are beginning their work. A type one team has arrived and they worked on their plan early this morning. Roads are being closed.

Alan and I spent most of the night packing artwork, computers etc, then drove to the base of the hill and tried to sleep in the car for an hour or so. Soon, too soon, a red sun burned in the east. The fire was still above our house, so we returned briefly for a shower and breakfast.

Fire has burned about 8000 acres, the entire northeast face of the Chiricahuas in a single 24 hour period. It was burning about a half mile directly above our house when we went back up for breakfast. Rumor is that flames were also visible from SWRS. Wind is gusty. I found wireless at Chiricahua Desert Museum, to make this post, but will have to add photos later.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


In haste, as we just received a midnight call to evacuate. The flames are indeed visible from our house as the fire approaches the environs of Portal. Time to pack the computer!

Horseshoe 2 Fire: Deja Vu

Today a fire began in the Chiricahuas and quickly blew into a large burn. It apparently began in upper Horseshoe Canyon, close to the origin of last year's Horseshoe Fire, and is being called Horseshoe 2. A Type 1 fire team has been dispatched and will arrive here in the morning.

Horseshoe 2 Fire on 8 May 2011; the peak on the left is Portal Peak. 
(Photo by Narca)

Last year, the fire started in a very menacing fashion, and then settled after a few days into a relatively sedate, well-mannered burn. But last year we'd had a winter of very high rainfall, and the vegetation was wet.

This year, conditions are vastly different, after an extremely dry winter. Winds have been blowing all spring, and are forecast to continue to be sustained this week, with gusts predicted at 45 MPH.

The Sulphur Canyon area lies downwind, and homes in that area are being evacuated right now. We are of course worried about our friends and neighbors in the fire's path.

No lightning has been detected; the fire is almost certainly human-caused.

Tom Arny very aptly characterized the view of the fire from Rodeo as "apocalyptic."

Uh-oh: our neighbor 1/2 mile away was just told to evacuate. The wind has shifted and the fire is "completely out of control."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hermit Thrushes

We're seeing two races of Hermit Thrushes right now in the Chiricahuas, slipping quietly along the edges of trails.

Hermit Thrush taxonomy is complicated and unresolved, with roughly 10 races. Whatever the finer divisions, they do resolve into three basic groups: the bright Eastern forms, with their tawny flanks; the grayer, paler subspecies of the interior mountain West; and the more variable races of the Pacific Coast.

When we're used to seeing one of the races, a different form can easily fool us into thinking we're seeing a different species of thrush. Look for the warm reddish tones on the tail!

Auduboni is the race that breeds in the high mountains of southeast Arizona, where their ethereal songs lend a special magic to dawn and dusk in the forest. Other than that, I haven't fit our birds into their appropriate groups yet, but have noticed this: the thrushes that overwinter are very pale, with light spotting on their breasts. Here is a photo from today's walk of our familiar race.

A paler, local race of Hermit Thrush (Photos by Narca)

And for the past three weeks or so, this darker, brighter, more heavily spotted migrant has been coming through. These photos, also taken today along the trail from Sunny Flat Campground in Cave Creek Canyon, show the migrant Hermit Thrush.

If any Hermit Thrush expert would like to shed light on exactly what we're seeing, please do!

Whatever the name of the race, the Hermit Thrush's song is arrestingly beautiful. Listen for it during nesting season!