Sunday, June 26, 2011

South Fork, with Trogons

Today the annual census of Elegant Trogons in Cave Creek Canyon was allowed to happen, under an exemption to the Forest closure issued by District Ranger Bill Edwards. (Thank you, Bill!)

Rick Taylor will be releasing the final tally when he has pored over the data, but it appears to be quite low this year (not surprising). Roughly 8 trogons were found––all of them in South Fork, and none in the main canyon. That is surprising! In a more normal year, the tally would be twice that, and in one year, Dave Jasper found 21 nests.

After the fire (Photos by Narca)

Several of us were stair-stepped up South Fork, beginning with Terry Morgan and Karen Walz along the road and up to the bridge, then including Maya Decker, Heidi Fischer, John Yerger, Morgan Jackson, Alan Craig, Peg Abbott, me, and Richard Webster at the highest elevation above Maple Camp.

My territory ran from about 1/3 mile below Maple Camp, up to that much loved site, and it happened to be the most intensively burned part of South Fork that any of us saw. Even there, however, the burn was mostly moderate, and several of the big maple trees look as if they will survive, even though many other trees growing on that same terrace have been reduced to charcoal.

A surviving maple, with Maple Camp behind it

Maple Camp vignette: a maple leaf caught in Arizona Pine bark

A hazard tree at Maple Camp

These photos represent the most intense burn that I saw, so take heart! The overwhelming sentiment among the others in our small group was that the burn wasn't as bad as they had expected. (It was pretty much exactly what I expected.)

Only a few patches of green relieve this more intense burn, approaching Maple Camp. Fire also ran up the peak behind.

Another fairly intense patch in the South Fork bottom, but even here some of the sycamores retain green leaves.

This Sotol, with its root mass, rolled down from the cliffs when Horseshoe Two burned through South Fork Canyon.

Very striking was the new growth on many of the burned trees. A few root masses were burned out, but most of the trees will likely survive (if they survive the continuing drought). Burnt mounds of Deer Grass were sending up new shoots. Scorched Rocky Mountain Maple, Arizona Walnut, Velvet Ash, Arizona Sycamore, Arizona Madrone, Sandbar Willow, and several species of oaks were all sprouting tender new leaves. One clump of Golden Columbine bloomed. Grape vines were emerging. False Indigo was sprouting abundantly––when that flowers, it will be a big bonus for butterflies in search of nectar.

An Apache Pine regenerates needles

This charred Arizona Walnut wears an anklet of green.

Butterflies themselves were very scarce. I saw a single small satyr, a single Red-spotted Purple, a single Two-tailed Swallowtail.

Red-spotted Purple, photographed in a more clement year

The center of my territory was the trailhead for the Burro Spring Trail. A small but good chain of pools attracted butterflies, dragonflies, birds, foraging Yarrow's Spiny Lizards, and one Cliff Chipmunk. Miraculously, Speckled Dace survive there. In the last 6 months, these tiny fish have endured severe freezing, extreme drought, and now the fire.

Speckled Dace in a small pool at the Burro Spring Trailhead

Although the canyon seemed quieter than wont in my area, a pair of Painted Redstarts and a pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers both gathered food for nestlings. An American Robin was gathering nest material, perhaps for a second attempt. A Northern Pygmy Owl called upslope, and a Zone-tailed Hawk sailed past. A young male Arizona Woodpecker was near adults. All these signs of new life were heartening.

When the trogon flew in, he came silently. For a few moments he paused in a scorched maple, then continued silently downstream, to be seen by Peg in the adjoining territory. Farther down, Alan saw a pair of trogons just above the Bathtub; those were both calling.

The only Elegant Trogon I saw today, a male with a soot-stained tail

Peg and I both felt like witnesses to a friend's travail. There seemed little we could actually do, beyond acknowledging the canyon's wounding, its survival with challenges still to come, its great importance as a place in our lives. I once met a group of Chiricahua Apaches as they emerged from the South Fork Trail, having just gone up canyon to drum for their ancestors in that sacred landscape. Many people, having hiked even once in South Fork, feel the place's indelible mark on their spirits.

South Fork is resilient. It survives, with trogons.

Amid the desolation, a yucca blooms.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Night of Nighthawks

Last night at dusk I stepped onto the balcony of our Roundhouse, and Lesser Nighthawks were drifting silently all around in the dim light, floating in the still air, suddenly quick as they found an insect. How very peaceful. Life is returning to its deep, quiet ways.

Lesser Nighthawks nest on arid slopes below our house.
(Pen and ink by Narca)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"It's Kinda Nice To Win One"

Tonight fewer lights gleam on the horizon at the Fire City next to the Chiricahua Desert Museum, north of Rodeo. The nomads are pulling up stakes, some to head home, some to relocate in Willcox for the next stage of the fire work.

Horseshoe Two Fire map on 22 June 2011

Just look at that fire perimeter––they are still saying 95% containment, but it looks a lot like 100% to me!  That lovely black line means that the Horseshoe Two Fire isn't going anywhere, but it doesn't mean that it is 100% out. 

District Ranger Bill Edwards noted at last night's community meeting that the fire won't be out until the rains come––hotspots are still burning within the perimeter––and the current closure of Coronado National Forest won't be lifted until the Forest has received a soaking of at least 1/2" of rain, Forest-wide. Although many of us are impatient to see the mountains for ourselves, the continuing closure is wise, both in the interest of public safety in the burnt areas and for some degree of prevention of more human-caused fires in the unburned areas. The record dryness of fuels is still unprecedented. 

Today the fire crews planned to make "significant progress" with mopping up hotspots and rehabilitating the effects of suppression. Bulldozer work on the Whitetail road is nearly finished. BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) crews were working today in the southern region of the fire, and other crews were being flown into the interior to assess the severity of the fire there. 

A last early morning briefing at Fire City (Photo by Narca)

In the more recently active MM Division, mop-up is continuing before rehabbing can start. 

In Chiricahua National Monument, hazardous trees are being removed. The southeast corner of the Monument burned at the highest intensity. Much of the rest of the Monument received a low-to-moderate burn. The prescribed burns that had been conducted in the Monument in recent years were an important factor in moderating the burn there.  

Today was a busy day for air operations, as they repositioned to Willcox, along with the Type 2 team which assumes command tomorrow morning. The fire city at Chiricahua Desert Museum north of Rodeo was being dismantled today, and the bulk of the teams is moving on.

Ranger Bill reviewed the work of our departing fire team led by Jim Thomas, the third Type 1 team to work on Horseshoe Two during the first 7 weeks of its duration. On arrival, they inherited a high-intensity blow-out which charred treasured regions of the Chiricahuas, including Rustler Park, Barfoot Park and lookout, and Onion Saddle. When they arrived, the fire was racing north, menacing Whitetail Canyon, Pinery Canyon, Chiricahua National Monument--all of the northern region of the Chiricahua Mountains. High winds generated firestorms in places like Whitetail Canyon.  Yet in spite of serious challenges, we are told that overall the fire team maintained a low-to-moderate intensity burn by using techniques like firing ridges in the evening, so that fire would back more slowly downhill into canyons, to meet the oncoming body of the fire. Without that active management, a far higher percentage of this range would have burned at high intensity. So the Type 1 fire teams managed to moderate a very, very bad situation. We were told last night that many of the "old fire dogs" had never seen conditions this extreme. 

Not only is the Portal-Rodeo community grateful for the firefighters' work, we are also glad that it happened without any serious injuries. Their safety record received high praise: during 169,000 work hours (so far) in difficult terrain, there were only 8 minor injuries. 

As a post script, I should say that fire danger continues in any unburned areas of our communities, even given the Forest closure. We still have lightning storms on the horizon, and groups of illegal entrants are still being seen about every other day, according to Bill Edwards. 

Just yesterday our next-door neighbors found a brand new campfire in the oaks next to our home, obviously built by illegals. Their fires are easy to identify by the nature of the trash left behind--the labels in Spanish on empty tin cans, the burlap used by drug runners to carry loads of marijuana, the ragged discarded blankets. (Now... about that program for allowing workers to enter legally, thereby eliminating at least one big part of the problem....)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Relief, Tempered

I'm trying to restrain that feeling of relief, just in case the Horseshoe Two Fire has more surprises in store, but as of this morning the beast is 90% contained and burning only at the north end in fuels that are increasingly sparse and discontinuous. Yesterday, June 20, was the first day that Horseshoe Two did not produce a towering column of smoke.

North end of the Horseshoe Two Fire on 21 June 2011

A solemn moment came in this morning's fire briefing, when crews learned of the deaths yesterday of two firefighters who were working on the Blue Ribbon Fire in Florida. Everyone observed a time of silence. The firefighting community is tightly bonded. The names of the two men have not been released, but they worked for the Florida Division of Forestry. The Blue Ribbon Fire started last Thursday and had been declared contained, but flared again yesterday.

Rich Harvey, the Incident Commander in training, was eloquent in pointing out the dangers that all the crews face. He asked the assembled crew bosses what they had heard when the meterologist said it is going to be hot. "Did you hear dehydration?" Apparently some of the more dangerous situations leading to fatalities include being isolated in a quiet part of a big fire; they include times of transition between teams; they include times when the danger seems minimal, and crews let down their guard.

Weather today in the Chiricahua Mountains is expected to be similar to yesterday's, except that the wind is shifting to come from a more northerly direction. Today the diurnal wind will be blowing lightly upslope and up canyons, and is expected to be the most erratic on the lower western edge of the fire near Division B. Dust devils could bedevil the crews working there. (Scroll down to yesterday's full fire map to see the location.) Wednesday and Thursday are both predicted to be days of "excessive" heat.

Most of the perimeter is probably secure, although patrols will continue to search out and destroy any hot spots. Fire teams strive to have a 300 ft black line at the perimeter of a fire, because that usually prevents further spread. (I hope that is still the case, in this year of unprecedented conditions of dryness and wind.)

Rehabilitation is a big theme today. Crews will be hauling out equipment, clearing roads of down trees, removing debris in Cave Creek Canyon (in anticipation of possible flooding) and otherwise eradicating the visible effects of fire suppression.

Tonight a wrap-up meeting with the departing Type 1 fire team will be held at the Rodeo Community Center at 6 PM. Come say thank you!

Under the bluest sky we've seen since May 8, Portal Peak towers above my house. Mostly blackened, it also shows a few patches and streaks of green.
(Photos by Narca)

As Horseshoe Two winds down, it has so far burned 223,214 acres, making it Arizona's fourth largest fire in historical times. If you notice the differences between this morning's and yesterday's maps of the north end, you will see that this morning's has been refined to include slightly less land burned.

The fire season is far from over, even though our big Horseshoe Two is mostly roped and tied. We in Portal are still very concerned for our friends in the Huachucas, where the Monument Fire is expected to burn down Carr Canyon today, toward Highway 92.  Lightning that precedes the monsoon in Arizona hasn't even begun. Fire is ravaging seven states––Texas, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Colorado, California and Arizona––and is springing up in others as well. Mary Christensen told the briefing that 146 new fires have been reported just today in Florida and Texas. Texas is in the midst of record drought. Overall, this is the worst year ever recorded for wildfires in the US. Stay safe. Send rain.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Wow! The Fire Lines Held!

Yesterday's raging wind, which gusted to about 50 mph, created serious challenges for fire crews working on both the Horseshoe Two and the Monument Fires. In the Chiricahuas, those lines actually held!  Incident Commander Jim Thomas congratulated the firefighters, saying that the success was the culmination of days of hard work well-done at the active north end of the fire. The crews held onto key terrain, and Horseshoe Two is "still in the box." As of last night, this fire had burned 213,511 acres and was 80% contained.

Map of the Horseshoe Two Fire on 20 June 2011

Yesterday's wind blew from the west, pushing the fire east into Emigrant and Wood Canyons, where it eventually stalled in lighter, discontinuous fuel. Last night during calmer conditions, fire crews mopped up in Marble Canyon and extended the fire edge in Division PP.

Detail of Horseshoe Two Fire map on 20 June 2011

During the high winds, crews were monitoring all the cooler regions of the burn as well, taking no chances that flare-ups would send fire brands aloft to start new fires.

Today the crews plan to secure Wood Canyon, Keating Canyon and the Heller Ranch, and to mop up in Marble Canyon.

A high pressure weather system is building, and light (but potentially erratic) winds are expected from the west and northwest. Temperatures will be slightly cooler in the 90ºs and relative humidity is rising, perhaps as high as 14% overnight. (Yesterday on the Monument Fire a RH value of 0 was recorded!) So conditions will be much more favorable for managing both fires, although firefighters will still need to be careful of surprises caused by shifting, erratic wind, which could raise fire whirls (dust devils carrying flame). Dryness of fuel is just as extreme as it was yesterday.

Air support should be able to fly today for both fires. The air operations chief cautioned that erratic, 20 mph gusts today could still be problematic, so air crews need to be careful.

On other areas of the Horseshoe Two burn, rehabilitation continues today with significant mop-up slated for the interior of the Chiricahua Mountains. Crews will concentrate on rehabbing the area from Paradise south.

Our third Type 1 team is in the process of transitioning to Stan Benes' Type 2 team from the Northern Rockies, which will assume command of the fire on Thursday. A wrap-up meeting for the Type 1 team is being scheduled for 6 PM tomorrow (Tuesday) at the Rodeo Community Center. Watch for an announcement! It is the community's chance to thank the departing crews for their long hours of difficult work, conducted in the highly professional manner we've seen in all the Type 1 teams that have worked here.

Sign in downtown Portal (slightly embellished)
(Photos by Narca)

We are so, so close to seeing an end to this ordeal in the Chiricahuas. Let there be no surprises at this late stage!

Yesterday evening, it was possible to listen to the meeting in Sierra Vista about the Monument Fire, using the Volke website for streaming events over the internet. Click on "Volke" if you want to sign up for future events.

Yesterday was very intense for folks in the way of the Monument Fire. Fire whirls cast fire brands across Highway 92 in several places, and the live audio feed from the scanner that tuned into radio used by fire crews was full of pleas for help at several locales. The Facebook page for the Monument Fire was in a state of pandemonium, but the voices of firefighters on the radio sounded cool-headed and professional.

Plenty of help is on the way for our friends in Sierra Vista. The Monument Fire is the #1 fire priority in the nation. The National Guard is coming, primarily to help with jobs like security of evacuated areas, because they aren't trained to do the actual firefighting. Fort Huachuca will be receiving help from other bases as well. Now that air support can fly, the fort and the fire team have plenty of craft to put into the air.

I was amazed to learn that the Antelope Fire (which consumed 2000 acres north of the Monument Fire before it was contained) was started by a spark from the blade of a bulldozer striking a rock. In retrospect, crews are actually glad for that fire because it created a good blackline on the base, according to a speaker at last night's informational meeting.

As of last night, the Monument Fire had burned 26,956 acres and was 27% contained.

Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch said at last night's meeting that the Forest has assembled a fire team to advise them not just on the current fires, but on approaching the Forest as a whole, during this season of unprecedented fire danger. Their exact goals weren't clear to me. He also said that meterologists are not seeing any indication of the monsoon's arrival very soon.

That seems slightly at variance with the rise in humidity announced at this morning's Horseshoe Two Fire briefing. We always look for a rise in humidity preceeding the onset of the summer rains. In fact, the indicator I use is the appearance of tarantulas. Male tarantulas emerge when humidity rises, because they can more easily sense the presence of females still tucked into their burrows. Usually a rain follows the tarantulas' emergence by 1-3 days. So if anyone starts seeing tarantulas, let us know!

Mary Christensen, information officer for Horseshoe Two, said this morning that a delay in the rains will enable more rehab work to be done here before possible floods come. (But in the Huachuchas, a delay could extend the burning!)

We are seeing more wild refugees driven down from the burnt areas of the Chiricahuas. Bears have been visiting feeders around the town of Portal, and one found us last night. Another evening visitor was this Striped Skunk. Water put out for wildlife has been bringing in everything from Gray Foxes to Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes. One big diamondback (at least 5 feet long) spent a half hour sucking water from a leaky faucet.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Quick Update on Horseshoe Two

Last night and early this morning, fire crews working at the north end of the Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains were able to tie in a line from Emigrant Canyon to Buckhorn Basin and to strengthen this line before the wind arrived. You can see these canyons labeled on the fire map from yesterday's post.

That wind is a huge challenge today, for the Horseshoe Two as well as the Monument Fire, but as of today's meeting at noon, the lines were holding. The horrific wind has shifted from blowing from the southwest to the west, and that shift is favorable for the Chiricahua fire.

In Sierra Vista, I'm guessing that the same shift will instead drive fire down the canyons and toward town. A witness posting to Facebook just wrote, "Carr Canyon just exploded––the fire's coming down the side of the mountain faster than a person can run––I hope the crews got clear before it blew up."

Monument Fire Article

While I await more up-to-date information on the Horseshoe Two Fire, click HERE for an excellent article by Tom Beal, Fernanda Echavarri, and Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star on the Monument Fire. The Star is updating its website regularly.

Today's winds are causing serious problems for the firefighters. Air support in Sierra Vista has been grounded since 9 AM due to wind gusting to 50 mph at the ridgelines. Here in the Chiricahuas, we are experiencing the same winds, and new smoke is billowing in the north, where the Horseshoe Two Fire is still active.

Judging from the Monument Fire Facebook page, Sierra Vista is in the midst of a hellacious crisis. A fire "blow out" was reported in Miller Canyon, and the advancing front has crested over Carr Canyon and is well established there. All pre-evacuation orders are now mandatory, all the way east to the San Pedro River, south of Buffalo Soldier Trail, and north of Ramsey Road.

Monument Fire (Photo by Monica Lervold)

HERE is a link to a map of the recent evacuations.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Breaking Camp in Rodeo

A major milestone has been reached with the containment of the western perimeter of the Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains. Now the only very active part of the fire lies in the north, and the big fire camp in Rodeo is going to begin to break down today. The main operation will be moved to Willcox, closer to the active northern perimeter and closer to supplies. However, Rich Harvey cautioned crews that at this point expectations are for a quick finish––and it isn't over, until it's over. He noted that the only surprise now would be a bad one, and no one wants to see that. So, patiently, the work continues.

Horseshoe Two Fire map for 18 June 2011
The hand-hatched areas in the north represent last night's operations.
The western edge of the fire is now contained, except for mop-up.

In the west at Divisions A and B, the fire line was joined and a burnout completed that held through the night. Mop-up remains to be done, to insure that no hot spots flare and start new fires. The mop-up along any recently active containment lines is rather more important today: today is another day when weather flirts with red flag conditions, but a really big blast of wind is expected the following day. (That is very bad news for the Monument Fire in the Huachucas!) Crews want to be certain that the west side of Horseshoe Two is completely buttoned up before the next really big––and unseasonal––wind arrives.

Even today, wind is expected to blow at 17-27 mph in the valley and 30-40 mph on ridges. At 35 mph, a red flag is triggered, and air support is grounded because flying becomes too dangerous.

At the north edge of the planned containment line, the night shift anchored the fire line at the Mulkins Ranch in Emigrant Canyon, and crews plan to extend that line today across the north, in order to catch the body of the fire there as winds drive it north. Big winds, especially tomorrow, will be deflected by topographic features, setting up very dangerous conditions for firefighters. Squirrelly winds could spin the fire 180º and bring havoc to all the plans. Growth potential and terrain difficulty both remain extreme.

The crews working last night to complete the fire line in Divisions A and B were well into their burn when suddenly four undocumented aliens burst through the flames and ran out of the fire (apparently uninjured), and past the firefighters. (The crew called Border Patrol.) The crews are used to clearing areas as much as possible of deer and cattle before firing a line, but these folks don't live along the border, and they were surprised indeed by the illegals. Harvey advised anyone igniting fire to yell, "¡Pásela!" before firing, to try to shoo hidden people out of danger.

Containment lines at the perimeter have all been built, but 14 miles of line is indirect, which needs to be reinforced and burned out.

Detail of active northern region of Horseshoe Two Fire, 18 June 2011

Rehabilitation is underway in the cooled interior of the fire, including in Paradise. Hazardous trees and roads are being taken care of in Whitetail Canyon.

When the fire camp is moved, 25% of the crew will remain in the Portal area, based at the fire station. 25% will stay at Ash Camp. 50% will be at the new Incident Command Post in Willcox (I believe at a high school, but check that). This third Type 1 team is transitioning now to a Type 2 team, so the worry about Horseshoe Two has downgraded to the next level. The new team will shadow the current team in order to learn the local situation, and will take over officially on Thursday. Meanwhile the BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team is also engaged here.

Recent statistics for the Horseshoe Two Fire: 206,314 acres burned; 70% contained. The figure on size is old, and should be updated soon. For the Monument Fire near Sierra Vista: 19,335 acres burned; 15% contained.

The situation in Sierra Vista was complicated yesterday by new fires at Antelope Road and Garden Canyon. I've been told that the two new ones were contained, but not before one of them burned a short distance across Buffalo Soldier Trail. Inciweb today says that the Antelope Fire was 95% contained by 5 PM, at a size of 1000 acres.

The Monument Fire's run east along Hereford Road, toward the San Pedro River, was stopped. Intense bombardment of Miller Canyon with retardant was reportedly successful in calming this most active region of the fire. Fire lines are being constructed from Carr Canyon to Fort Huachuca. North of Miller Canyon, fire lines are being prepared for a possible burnout, if that is deemed necessary in order to hold the fire.

Up-to-the-minute information is being posted to the Facebook page on the Monument Fire. However, many untrue rumors and panicked entries are also being posted, and the main impression readers gained from it yesterday was a sense of utter chaos.

Some good news is starting to filter in that the homes of several friends have survived the Monument Fire, so far. Others, like entomologist Noel McFarland, face big losses. Word is that Mary Jo Ballator's Ash Canyon B&B did survive, one of only two houses in that location to be spared. Does anyone know how Tom Beatty in upper Miller Canyon fared?

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Fires, Mainly Horseshoe Two

Progress continues on containing the Horseshoe Two Fire (now at 184,198 acres) in the Chiricahua Mountains, although challenging conditions also continue as we face another red flag day, when winds from the southwest are expected to gust above 35 mph. At the 6 AM briefing to fire crews, the meteorologist noted that already this early in the day, winds on ridges were over 30 mph, even though in the valley it seemed calm. Last night––a time when winds usually die down––there were gusts to 40 mph.

Horseshoe Two Fire map for June 17, 2011

In the southwestern part of the fire (divisions A and B), the burnout continues in John Long and Rucker Canyons, and a great deal has been accomplished there. But the job isn't yet finished, and crews were cautioned that with these winds and the unprecedented dryness of fuel, the fire can still jump containment and go anywhere. Containing this part of the fire perimeter is within reach, but not yet in the bag. Work has progressed in Division B to the point that crews there are waiting for Division A to also make it to the point that the open perimeter can safely be pinched off.

Detail of active western part of Horseshoe Two Fire

The trickier and more difficult job is at the north end of the fire. Fire is established in upper Wood and Emigrant Canyons. Here in the north, several canyons are lining up with the wind, setting the stage for possible high-intensity runs in Wood, Buckhorn, Maverick and Emigrant Canyons. Mountain peaks to the south of that line of canyons could deflect the prevailing wind, generating down-canyon flow. We have on our hands another day of extreme fire behavior.

Detail of active northern perimeter of Horseshoe Two Fire

At the northern perimeter line, crews have begun to fire the flat lands, to create a blackline that will hopefully arrest the oncoming body of the fire. Firing has been difficult and very slow because firefighters are working into the prevailing wind; great care has to be taken that firing operations don't spread north but instead accomplish what they are trying to achieve: setting up a solid containment line. Securing this northernmost perimeter is key to beginning work in Division MM. So if winds allow, more burning out will proceed today, focused on Buckhorn Basin, Emigrant Canyon and Marble Canyon. If winds don't allow, crews will focus more on structure protection at local ranches.

Mop-up work continues along the contained western perimeter and in Chiricahua National Monument. Whitetail Canyon is cooling; the danger there has probably passed. Crews working in the burnt areas will be rehabilitating any damage from suppression efforts. The Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team has arrived and begins its work today. They will identify the highest priority areas for rehabilitation.

The big repeater in the Rodeo area being used for radio communications will be moved today closer to Bowie, because the primary need is now at the north end of the Chiricahuas.

Competition for fire crews and other resources is becoming more intense as other fires menace the region. Horseshoe Two currently has 1335 fire personnel. Crews currently on the job were asked whether they are interested in extending their work period from the normal 14 days to 21 or even 30 days. The need is extreme this year.

Bill Edwards confirmed to me this morning that the Monument Fire in the Huachuca Mountains has again jumped Highway 92 at Stump Canyon. At last report, it was roaring toward the San Pedro River, but has been held south of Hereford Road. As our neighboring mountain range, the Huachucas will be subject to the same extreme fire behavior and red flag conditions today that are expected for the Chiricahuas.

The Monument Fire has burned 18,580 acres and is 15% contained. There has been a big, much-needed jump in the number of fire personnel on the job, up now to 764. At the north end of the fire, a line is being prepared from Hunter Canyon to Carr Canyon. Forest Road 4781 is being prepared for a potential burnout. Another meeting to inform the Sierra Vista community of progress on the Monument Fire will be held this evening at 6 PM at the Windemere Hotel.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Barfoot Now a National Natural Landmark

Barfoot Park, long loved by birders, herpetologists, boy scouts, and hikers in the Chiricahua Mountains, has been designated a National Natural Landmark in a directive signed yesterday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It joins 590 other locations which have received this honor since the program was established in 1962. The program singles out the best examples of our country's biological and geological features, whether in public or private ownership.

Former view from Barfoot ridge, not far from the Short-tailed Hawk nest
(Photos by Narca)

How bittersweet! Anyone following news of the Horseshoe Two Fire will know that Barfoot was incinerated a couple of weeks ago, in a high-intensity blowout. However, Bill Edwards (District Ranger for the Coronado National Forest) believes that the elements that made it a site of national importance are still present, and that Barfoot will recover, given time. Indeed all of us hope that.

From the press release: "Barfoot Park in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona supports an unusual mix of Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountain flora and fauna that includes four pine species and 18 other tree species. It also includes more than 15 acres of talus slopes, along with three meadows and two permanent springs. The landmark encompasses 680 acres of federal land managed by the U.S. Forest Service."

The talus slopes are the U.S. epicenter for a very rare rattlesnake, the Twin-spotted. Forested slopes are home to a rare butterfly, the Pine Satyr, which barely enters the US from Mexico. Did they survive, I wonder? Will Pine Satyrs have to recolonize from Mexico, once habitat is again suitable? Some day will Short-tailed Hawks again nest on the high ridges?

Pine Satyr above Barfoot Park, July 2010

Silene laciniata, or Mexican Pink, in the high Chiricahuas
Young Short-tailed Hawk sketched at nest above Barfoot Park
(Ballpoint pen by Narca)

Six places in all were added to the roster of National Landmarks. In addition to Barfoot, they are Golden Fossil Areas near Golden, Colorado; Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Kahlotus Ridgetop near Kahlotus, Washington; Round Top Butte near Medford, Oregon; and The Island at the confluence of the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers in eastern Oregon.

Valuable Websites on Fire and Drought

Amy Stirrup brought this website to my attention: It has more complete information on the three raging Arizona wildfires than can be found on inciweb. The Monument Fire, in particular, has been frustratingly difficult to learn about.

Another very interesting website monitors drought across the US: As you can see, southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, a big swath of Texas, and a few other regions are in the grip of exceptional drought, beyond even the "extreme" category. (Thanks to Gary Rosenberg for sending the link to this website.)

Here is an image for June 14 from the National Drought Mitigation website:

Our current extremity is also caused by the exceptional deep freeze of last winter, which killed or damaged many plants, leaving the landscape so dry (in conjunction with the drought) that fire crews on the Horseshoe Two Fire have found 1000-hour fuel that dried out enough to burn in less than 1 hour, a situation never before encountered.

No-o-o-o, environmentalists aren't responsible for these fires or their severity, contrary to some of the rants being broadcast by people with an agenda. No group of humans is yet capable of inflicting freeze and drought on the land! But 100 years of fire suppression over large areas is a likely factor. Agencies like the US Forest Service have been attempting in recent years to reintroduce fire to fire-adapted landscapes through prescribed burning, at times when a low- to moderate-intensity burn can be achieved, but we are still way behind the game.


During disaster, people come together. We connect more deeply with each other. And the disastrous big fires raging in Arizona are no exception. Our friends are invaluable, as we stand together and nurture each other during crisis.

From my farflung net of friends come a couple of offerings for today's post. Brad Tatham happened to be flying over the Chiricahua Mountains on June 14 and snapped these photos out the airplane window. On this day, the smoke columns were rising from a burnout in Rucker Canyon and from Chiricahua National Monument (a column that was visible all the way to Kolb Road in Tucson). Forest between the major smoke columns has already burned.

Horseshoe Two Fire in Chiricahua Mountains, June 14, 2011
(Photos by Brad Tatham)

Yesterday I was hearing from friends caught up in the fast-growing Monument Fire in the Huachuca Mountains in Sierra Vista. Getting real news of that fire from official sources has been extremely difficult. Even the site failed to list it for many days. (I've been wondering if that was because the Type 1 fire team called to the job had its hands so full, and because the scene was so chaotic as people dealt with the Ash Canyon firestorm, that at first accurate information couldn't be condensed to the standard digests usually posted on inciweb.)

Several friends, refugees from Ash Canyon, were gathering at Casa de San Pedro B&B in Hereford, a truly lovely place where we often settle with our tour groups. Peg Abbott (with the help of Bob Rodrigues) decided to pitch in with a nice meal for our friends (and friends of friends) who found shelter at the B&B after evacuating their homes, so Alan and I grabbed a few treats from Trader Joe's, and drove into Sierra Vista in late afternoon to join them.

As the Huachuca Mountains loomed larger, we could see the Monument Fire burning at the crest of Miller Peak, and then heading down the east slope of the peak––even though it was moving into the wind. Conditions are so dry in the mountain ranges of southeast Arizona that fire is behaving in ways rarely seen, including following fuels into the wind. That has been happening in the Chiricahuas, and now we see it happening in the Huachucas as well.

Descriptions of the firestorm that hit Ash Canyon sound like another example of a huge column (20,000 ft+) of superheated air, fire and smoke collapsing on itself, as started to happen in Whitetail Canyon in the Chiricahuas. Now word is slowly trickling out about the aftermath of that firestorm. It appears that at least 40 homes were badly damaged or destroyed. Part of the problem of assessing the situation is that going in there is still dangerous. Meanwhile homeowners live with acutely uncomfortable anxiety, as they wait for word of the outcome. So far it appears that Bob Behrstock, Karen LeMay and Ted Mouras have homes to return to. However, hot spots are still flaring, and it is too soon to be certain of anything.

The latest statistics for the Monument Fire: size is 9,300 acres; 17% containment. For Horseshoe Two: size is 184,198 acres; 60% containment.

And today? The wind continues to blow, creating red flag conditions. The Monument Fire continues to spread in the high country of the Huachuca Mountains and to force evacuations, and in the Chiricahuas, the fire crews continue to  attempt to moderate the intensity of Horseshoe Two Fire and to contain it within a backburned perimeter. Due to extradordinary conditions, these aren't normal fires.

But last night? Last night was a very welcome respite from the tension of dealing with disaster. Thank you, Peg! Thank you, Karl and Patrick. It was an excellent evening.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

And the Fire Burns On

The meterologist at today's fire briefing said that winds will again blow today at 20-25 mph, creating squirrelly conditions in some of the canyons, especially in West Turkey Creek and Pinery. Heat is increasing and will be over 90º today, with extremely low relative humidity of 3-5%.

Horseshoe Two Fire map at June 14 briefing

The fire may be pushed further south in the southwest corner (section B). As extreme conditions continue, with record ERC values of 110-112 and 1000-hour fuels burning in the single digits, extreme behavior can continue, and the fire lines continue to be very dangerous to work. In the northern division PP, fire crews expect to see independent torching of trees and groups of trees, but no significant runs, unless winds again gust unexpectedly.

In one bright bit of news, the burnout on the west has been carried to the perimeter in division DD. After a hard-fought effort, crews managed to contain it there. Mop-up work remains to insure that there are no troublesome flare-ups.

Detail of fire map showing finished burnout in DD
and progress in Chiricahua National Monument

In Chiricahua National Monument, a slow prescription burn continues, ignited from the ridges. From the heights, it burns slowly down, creating a burn of much lower intensity. Fire is in lower Rhyolite Canyon. The difference between this type of fire management and uncontrolled fire is graphically illustrated by the difference between the post-fire condition of South Fork (where low-intensity burning was achieved) and the Rustler Park-Barfoot Park-Onion Saddle area (which was mostly cremated in a huge, uncontrolled, high-intensity run). As horrific as the amount of burning appears on the fire map, and as huge as the area covered is, much of that which was backburned is low to medium intensity. Soils there will be in better shape, and recovery should be faster.

One of the inciweb photos shows a Yellow-eyed Junco alive and well in the ashes of Rustler Park.

Some news of the Monument Fire was announced. They are hoping for a containment date of June 18. I'm guessing that control has been easier there because, unlike the Horseshoe Two fire, it started in the low country instead of up high, and so was more manageable at the very start. Time––and wind––will tell.

Wynne's Photos

I've added Wynne Brown's photos to her account of the Horseshoe Two Fire's run through Whitetail Canyon. To see them, scroll down to the first (lower) of the two entries for June 12.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Summer of Fire

Smoke from two regions of the Horseshoe Two Fire on 11 June 2011. 
To the left is smoke from the West Turkey Creek area; to the right, from Whitetail Canyon. (Photos by Narca)

Firefighters confronting the Horseshoe Two Fire in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains continue to encounter unprecedented fuel dryness. The values being found for both dead and live fuels are lower than ever before recorded in a wildfire.

Those record dry conditions are shared by the other Sky Island ranges in southeast Arizona. The record freeze last winter damaged or killed many oaks and pines, further drying them, and that damage (coupled with extreme winter drought) has greatly intensified the fire danger. We've all been holding our breaths that the other magnificent ranges will be spared the inferno being experienced by the Chiricahuas and the White Mountains, but a new fire began yesterday afternoon at the southern terminus of the Huachuca Mountains, in Coronado National Memorial, and already it is described as "massive." It was estimated at today's briefing to have burned about 3,000 acres in less than 24 hours. There were low whistles among the firemen when they heard how fast it has moved. (For comparison, Horseshoe Two grew to over 9,000 acres on the first day, when it was subjected to 50 mph winds.)

I'm not in a position to add solid information about this new Monument Fire, other than to say that friends living in Ash Canyon have already been evacuated, and as they left, they could see fire on the ridge above Ash Canyon. We have had no lightning. This fire, like Horseshoe Two, was human-caused, and the Coronado National Memorial was closed to public entry at the time the fire began. It lies along the Mexican border, and the fire began in the US just a short distance from the border. As with Horseshoe Two, the evidence implicating illegal entrants is entirely circumstantial. (But, duh!)

Returning to what is happening in the Chiricahuas, weather today is expected to be like yesterday's, only hotter. That means another day of wind at 30-35 mph on the ridges and 20-25 mph in the valleys. Conditions are likely to slip into another red-flag alert. Most of the fire movement is expected to be in the north, where it has reached Cochise Head. The planned fire perimeter lies along Marble and Emigrant Canyons in the north; terrain here should be much more manageable for holding the line.

Map of Horseshoe Two Fire on 13 June 11

In Whitetail Canyon, mop-up operations continue, to assure that residents are safe when they are allowed back in.

In the active western perimeter, winds will likely continue to eddy, causing erratic and unpredictable fire behavior. Yesterday some fire moved across the line in high wind just west of the monument, but it was contained, and crews this morning did not seem concerned about that breach.

Detail of active north edge of fire, 13 June 11

About two-thirds of Chiricahua National Monument has now burned, including Bonita Canyon up to Massai Point (a larger area than shown on the map, which doesn't reflect work done during the night). Crews have been carefully igniting ridges and letting the fire back down into the canyons in order to achieve a lower-intensity burn.

Today and tonight, firing operations will continue in the monument and in the section marked "Div B" on the upper map.

This rather beautiful map shows the progression of the Horseshoe Two Fire since its inception on May 8 through June 11, with the early period given in cooler blues. The fire now stands at 148,505 acres and is 48% contained. The estimated containment date is still June 22. The fire's growth potential and terrain difficulty remain extreme.

Arizonans will never forget this summer of fire, beyond all the bounds of what we've known before. And what happens, I wonder, when the pre-monsoonal lightning storms arrive?

Sunday, June 12, 2011


At last night's community meeting with the fire team, Rich Harvey (an incident commander) emphasized the extremes which the firefighters are encountering in their dealings with the Horseshoe Two fire––unprecedented in his 32 years of experience. (Very likely, firefolk on the Wallow and Murphy Complex fires are finding the same extremes.) None of the professionals in this Type 1 fire team have ever seen such dry fuels.

Dead fuels are classified as 1-hour fuel (like grass), 10-hour fuel, 100-hour fuel, and 1000-hour fuel (a big, down log). 100-hour fuel takes 100 hours to dry out enough that it will burn. Here in the Chiricahuas, 100-hour fuel is burning in only 3 hours, and that low a value has never before been seen by this team.

The amount of strong wind is blowing minds. Red-flag day follows red-flag day, and today we have another. Strong winds push fire into strong uphill runs, creating crown fires that take out stands of trees. The amount of energy being released in one hour's worth of crown fire in the Chiricahua Mountains is the equivalent of the energy released by an atomic bomb. Such a fire chute occurred when Horseshoe Two raged in only 3 hours from the Saulsbury Saddle line, up to and through Onion Saddle.

Yet, even with those serious extremes, a mosaic burn is being achieved in many areas through use of techniques that moderate the fire's growth and spread, including lighting ridge fires at night to back slowly down into canyons, and meet the oncoming fire before it rushes up those same ridges. Of all the techniques tried by the teams so far, the backburning is working best on this fire, under these conditions. Moderating the fire not only promotes a mosaic burn, but also protects soils for future regrowth.

A photo of the junction of Rustler and Barfoot roads showed many of the big trees still intact, so some of the mosaic burn still happened, even in this intensely-burned high country.

We also learned more about one crew boss's experience as they battled the holocaust in Whitetail Canyon, a situation vastly complicated by constantly-changing high winds that demanded the utmost in quick responses and flexibility. Plans had been carefully laid for protecting Whitetail, including a line laid by hand that joined the back road into Chiricahua National Monument, a dozer line, and structure protection. Then a big blast of wind from the south changed everything. One juniper flared and sent firebrands in all directions, and fire jumped the lines. A column of blazing hot smoke rose thousands of feet into the air, then rolled and started to collapse. That is a firefighter's nightmare, because a huge collapsing column sends fire everywhere as superheated smoke hits the ground. The worst-case scenario was narrowly avoided in Whitetail when another big wind gust suddenly straightened the column. Firefighters were beaten back from Whitetail by these volatile and dangerous conditions; when they were able to return, they found that the sprinklers and other structure protection in place had saved 18 of the 20 residences there.

A similar extreme event happened further south along the western flank of the fire, when the fire was being pushed upcanyon by very strong wind, which suddenly entered another canyon with different orientation, and sheared the fire column 180º, setting the entire column (thousands of feet high) to spinning. Suddenly the fire turned into the faces of the crew there.

These events involving collapsing columns of fire and smoke are quite rare, and this is only the second time in this operation chief's career that he has ever witnessed one.

One photo graphically illustrated why residents and other people are not yet being allowed back into the burned areas: a gaping hole where a tree once stood was still burning deep in the ground. Fires can burn into big root systems for days, making the terrain dangerous.

More than 1200 fire personnel are now working on Horseshoe Two. They are on the lines 24 hours a day, in two shifts. People in the planning department have longer days than those out on the fire lines: they are spending 16 - 20 hours a day working on strategy, as the fire moves and conditions constantly change.

The new planned perimeter lines are out in the flats, with much lower fuel supply and easy terrain. There they should finally be able to fully contain this fire. Rich Harvey said that they estimate that Horseshoe Two is now 45% contained. He is cautious about calling a fire contained because, "If I say it's contained and something happens, they name it after me and I'm in big trouble."

Other agencies help and advise the fire teams. US Forest Service staff are interested in resource protection, and they make sure that important details like the locations of crucial habitat and Spotted Owl nests are considered when fire plans are formulated.

The fire bosses said that two weeks of working on a fire like Horseshoe Two is worth years of experience of working on more normal fires.

Whitetail Canyon: a Firsthand Account

by Wynne Brown, Guest Author

All hell broke loose soon after I sent my last update. The wind picked up to 50-60 mph gusts that afternoon and blew so hard that it was hard to stand upright. The light in the Grills' barnyard turned copper, the sun disappeared, and the smoke was so thick we could barely see Blue Mountain, much less The Nippers, Split Rock, or Maverick Peak. It whipped anything that was smoldering into flame, junipers exploded, and burning embers flew as far as 3 miles, igniting the ground, trees, dead stumps, and dry grass wherever they landed.

Horseshoe Two from Portal on June 5
(All photos by Wynne Brown)

Whitetail became an inferno. Watching the smoke and, once darkness fell, the western glow, we knew for sure that every structure there HAD to be gone.

Jhus Canyon burning on June 7

A fire team member arrived just before dark to assess the defensibility of the Grills' ranch and let us know that although the fire probably wouldn't get here, we should be prepared to evacuate just in case. So we scrambled to devise a list of who would release which livestock, which horses would go where, what truck/trailer combination would hold our combined 8 dogs and 7 cats, what about the chickens and the lame calf, where would the llamas go––and would the 2 camels load in the stock trailer?

Peeking in the window as fire approaches

Peter and Frances were able to set up a generator on the pump that feeds the cattle waterer and the house, and our first showers in a week were very welcome. Clean or not, none of us slept much Wednesday night.

Thursday at 4:30 a.m. one of the firefighters pulled into the driveway to let us know two residences had burned and some other outbuildings. In the dark and smoke, he'd had a hard time identifying specific places (all our houses were coded: mine is structure #3)––but he was pretty sure Al's and my places were OK.

The rest of Thursday was more dense smoke, more clearing flammables away from structures, more fire team trucks pulling in and out of the driveway, more discussion between the Grills and the fire team about using their pond for helicopter dips or just filling tenders, multiple trips to the hill a mile away to check cell phone messages and make calls, and most of all, trying to get real information about damage to our homes. The assessment team couldn't get into Whitetail, which was still burning with flaming trees continuing to fall, hot rocks rolling down hillsides, stumps bursting into flame, the road thick with engines, tenders, and busloads of hotshot crews. I talked to a firefighter later, who grinned and said, "Yeah, we took some heat!"

By suppertime, Columbus Electric put in a new power pole so that this ranch could have power and the phone. Hallelujah!

On Friday (yesterday), the sheriff's office informed me: My barn burned, but my house is fine.

Remains of a barn

Thanks to the structure prep crews and the heroism of the firefighters who kept returning to the blaze after being beaten back by the heat, torching trees, and smoke––my house looks exactly the same as it did the week before all this started. The hay barn is nothing but a pile of roof metal and twisted rebar, but the tack shed, the Merhow horse trailer, the straw bale pump house, Jim's ATV and trailers, his office across the road––they're all fine.

Two of the 18 Whitetail residences burned.

Although the official rule is still no non-fire personnel in the area, two safety officers and the crew boss knew about Jim's stroke, knew that I needed to get to Tucson, and kindly arranged to take me into the canyon, as long as I promised to stay in the truck.

Until the turn-off into Jhus Canyon, everything looks normal, as long as you avoid glancing at the gray mountainsides above it. I had no idea it's so rocky....

After Jhus, the grassland is dotted with blackened patches, but Darrow Richins' cows looked healthy as they grazed on what dry grass is left. Once you cross the last cattle guard before my house, the devastation begins. Some areas look mostly OK, others are a black and white photo where the tonal range extends from tree trunks of deep black to ash-white ground. Some of it looks so different that, without my mailbox, I wouldn't have recognized my own driveway. In other areas, the mesquites still have drooping leaves of sooty green, and although the ground is bare and gray, the remaining junipers look as if they may make it.

The aftermath

My composter totally melted away, the garden hot box looks like a Salvador Dali dripping watch, the hay under the llama shelter is incinerated––but the big beautiful juniper I park under looks fine, and the 1000-pound bale in the slow feeder is unsinged under the hill horses' shelter.

The house sits in an oasis of green––and the firefighters even watered my petunias and marigolds.

On the surface, it might seem that the past six weeks have been nothing but loss: I've been laid off, my dog had to have her leg amputated, my partner had a stroke, and Hell roared through my property, destroying my barn.

Yet, my gratitude list is nearly endless. I still have a house, I still have Jim––although our life together will be very different than it was for some time to come––and I still live in a beautiful, if wounded, area.

But, most of all, I live in a buffer zone created by the loving, caring kindness of friends.

Thank you, all of you!

[And thank you, Wynne, for sharing your account with our community of concerned friends, both local and global! Wynne will send photos when she can, so check back in to see those too.]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Walt Anderson's Photos of Horseshoe Two

Walt Anderson is a long-time friend and fellow artist who teaches at Prescott College. He was in Chiricahua National Monument when the Horseshoe Two Fire jumped containment lines at Saulsbury Saddle and raged through Rustler and Barfoot Parks. His photos document that awesome, terrible event.

Smoke boils over the distant Chiricahua Mountains.
(All photos by Walt Anderson)

From Chiricahua National Monument

Horseshoe Two Fire from Sugarloaf in Chiricahua National Monument

An unearthly light filters through the smoke from Barfoot.

Barfoot in flames

The glowing dot after the inferno is Barfoot Lookout.