Tuesday, June 29, 2010

South Fork Reopens!

I returned home from Flagstaff to welcome news: the Horseshoe Fire is virtually extinguished! The Forest Service's fly-overs with infrared cameras have shown some remaining hotspots in smoldering tree stumps, but no live flames and no areas of concern.

The final tallies: fire size 3,386 acres; 85% contained; cost $9.8 million.

At last night's final community meeting regarding the Horseshoe Fire, District Ranger Bill Edwards, Jon Kohn and Chris Barth met with folks from Portal and Rodeo. Now the Coronado National Forest's own Type 3 fire response team, working under Darrell Miller, has assumed the final oversight of the Horseshoe Fire. Jon and Chris, both information officers from Wayne Cook's Type 2 fire team, advised us about further development of our community fire plan and said good-bye on behalf of Wayne Cook's crew. Delane announced that she's now a member of the Dalton Gang, having received her official Dalton Hotshots t-shirt.

This past weekend, Jon and Chris joined Peter Warshall in South Fork to photograph and measure stream channel conditions at critical junctures, so that we have a baseline for judging changes caused by sediment that will be washed into the stream when the monsoonal rains hit the debris from the fire. Years ago, the high-intensity Rattlesnake Fire wrought dramatic changes to the streambed, but we had no baseline for assessing those changes. The transformation is expected to be much less dramatic this time, because a low-intensity fire dominated in the South Fork drainage, but Peter's measurements will increase the accuracy of assessments.

Peter reports on the health of South Fork: "The manzanita crop looks great and bears will be well supplied. The bottom riparian from the junction of the Horseshoe trail and downstream is completely intact. Crews have cleared and defined the trail, and old timers will marvel at the ease of walking. They also cleared some of the poison ivy which was rampant this year. The acorn crop also looks good, so the Chiricahua Nayarit Squirrel [= Apache Fox Squirrel] should remain resident. At least three trogons called, and the Painted Redstarts were numerous. There were fingerlings in pools throughout the South [Fork of] Cave Creek channels."

And––hooray!––the roads into South Fork and Herb Martyr are open once again to visitors and hikers.

Attention is now focused on new lightning-ignited fires in the Chiricahuas, particularly the Brushy Fire, but none of those are burning in areas where homes or fragile resources are threatened, and they are being treated as what they are––part of the natural, pre-monsoonal fire regime. Rains should be arriving in a few days, and those are expected to douse the new fires.


Smoking San Francisco Peaks
(Photos by Narca)

Up in Flagstaff, the Shultz Fire has settled down considerably: the 15,000-acre blaze is now 75% contained, to the relief of the city's residents. While visiting my sister Kelly the past few days, we stopped at the command post to talk to Jim Payne, who had also worked the Horseshoe Fire in Portal. Jim and others told us that the nation's foremost fire rehabilitation team is being sent to deal with the aftermath of the Schultz Fire, because of danger posed by debris flows onto houses and the highway.

Green Gentian near Hart Prairie

The further side of the San Francisco Peaks was still open to hikers, and we spent one morning in the high mountain meadows and aspen stands near The Nature Conservancy's Hart Prairie Preserve. Tall gentians were blooming, Mountain Bluebirds foraging, and high-elevation butterflies flitting past. I guess I must have slipped over the line into serious lepping: the butterfly that most excited me wasn't the stunning Western Tiger Swallowtail––it was the nondescript, fabulous Ridings' Satyr. It was an onery bug, never allowing an unimpeded view!

Ridings' Satyr

What excited Georgia the most was friend Bobby's hot tub.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Well, maybe jubilation is overstating it... but a wetting rain did fall on the Horseshoe Fire last night, 0.12" at our house! Lightning started two new fires, one in Pinery Canyon and one in Brushy Canyon, and the Forest Service is flying over the area this morning to assess all three fires. It wasn't known this morning whether the new fires survived the rain.

Today more thunderstorms and lightning are predicted, with the possibility of more ignitions. A drying trend will follow. So we aren't yet out of the woods, but did that rain ever feel and smell and sound wonderful last night!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Time Lapse of Schultz Fire

One of Flagstaff's very fine photographers, Keiji Iwai, has given me permission to post a link to his spectacular time-lapse movie of the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff:



This morning at the fire briefing in Portal, the new map for the Horseshoe Fire hadn't changed from the last one: the small amount of burning yesterday was in the interior of the fire.

Today a major topic at the fire briefing was the weather. Meteorologist Joe Harris boosted his estimate of our chance for rain to 60%, and indeed today the thunderheads have built and are rumbling. While we are all hoping for rain, the firefighters find our pre-monsoon weather to be dangerous too. Dry lightning is the norm, and everyone is very alert today both to new ignitions and for their own safety.

Have you ever been close to a lightning strike, when the air sizzles for an instant and the smell of ozone is suddenly strong? Several of us were birding in the Animas Valley a few years ago when that happened. Three of us immediately hit the ground. I'm not sure what had happened to the survival instincts of the other two, but that day they got lucky.

Thunderheads build over Portal Peak
(Photo by Narca)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Schultz Fire Photos

Be sure to check yesterday's post––I added photos of the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff, which my sister sent!

Fire Line Holding in South Fork

This morning's briefing on the Horseshoe Fire was held under cloudy skies, with a ragged trace of virga falling to the northeast. The transition from Brad McBratney's fire crew to Wayne Cook's fire team became official this morning. (Brad is standing at the far left, dressed in blue.)

6 AM fire briefing at Portal Rescue building (Photo by Narca)

Yesterday's work by fire crews was successful in holding the Horseshoe Fire near the new fire lines constructed through manzanita and pinyon-juniper, close to the South Fork picnic area. A green arrow on the map points to that area of concern. Suppression work there continues today.

The fire bulged a bit on the northeast corner yesterday (see red arrow), and today's control efforts, including water drops, will include that region. The blue arrow points to another potentially active edge of the fire, which will also receive attention today.

The burn now covers 3401 acres and is considered 25% contained. Growth potential is at "medium," and it is still a game of patience.

Pete Miller surprised everyone at the briefing by taking the microphone to express our thanks to the crews from the whole community––his gesture was very well-received.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Firestorm in Flagstaff

Remember our Type 1 fire team led by Dugger Hughes? They are now in Flagstaff dealing with a much more extreme situation than the Horseshoe Fire presented. The fire in Schultz Pass flared from a tiny wisp of smoke (which my sister Kelly Burke noticed and phoned in) to a raging firestorm in a matter of hours. The smoke column towered to 30,000 feet, causing the Hopi at Second Mesa to think that the volcano of the San Francisco Peaks had erupted. In about a day and a half, whipped by 40 mph winds, the conflagration blew to 9,000 acres. Now at 14,000 acres, it is the nation's number one fire priority.

Here is one jaw-dropping photo, showing a small firefighting aircraft against the immensity of the fire, with Flagstaff in the foreground:

Schultz Fire from Flagstaff, June 20
(Photos by Kelly Burke)

Being in the midst of dealing with our own much more sedate Horseshoe Fire, we can certainly extend understanding and empathy to folks in Flagstaff, as they wait to see whether the north winds now being predicted will carry the fire four miles into the city itself. You can also check the progression of the Schultz Fire at www.inciweb.org.

Schultz Fire on June 22

At least we can tell our family and friends in Flag that they are in good hands! Dugger's team has been working hard and has quickly achieved 20% containment, as winds and fire behavior have moderated.

Suppression in South Fork

Yesterday the Horseshoe Fire was inordinately well-behaved: I saw no smoke! The fire crews report that the fire continues to back into the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon in the vicinity of the trailhead, although you can see by comparing today's fire map with yesterday's that the spread was not pronounced.

A crew did manage to put in a fire line and an escape route in the vicinity of D8 (see green arrow on map), and will work more in that area today. The fire line is being constructed through manzanita and sparse pinyon-juniper habitat. A blackened safety zone was created yesterday.

Efforts to pinch off the fire have been going well. Helicopters continue to drone overhead, carrying water and retardant to aid on-the-ground suppression efforts. The fire has finally moved downslope far enough that the terrain allows firefighters to work on the ground in this one region near the South Fork trailhead.

Green arrow points to region of today's suppression efforts. 
Next to the arrow, you can see the black chain indicating the new fire line, built yesterday.

Today, the firefighters again expect active ground fire with moderate upslope runs. It should continue to spread by backing downslope and flanking, then by burning upslope through the preheated canopy. Unless it is checked to the west at the fireline, the flames are expected to advance about a quarter-mile toward the creek bottom.

The incoming Public Information Officer, Jon Kohn, reiterated something that's very worth remembering: wherever the fire is burning through fire-adapted habitat, the endemic animals are also fire-adapted. When I went into the fresh burn above Maple Camp during the trogon census, I saw several Yarrow's Spiny Lizards and Striped Plateau Lizards running about the burnt ground, their normal patterning dulled by a coating of ash, but very much alive. Likewise, a number of birds like Buff-breasted Flycatchers seem to depend on regenerated habitat after a burn. We could also see some wildflowers after the rains which need the heat of fire to break their seeds' dormancy, and which are rare to absent at other times.

A cold Yarrow's Spiny Lizard (Photo by Narca)

A big concern has been keeping a high-intensity fire out of the old growth riparian habitat of South Fork, and so far that effort has been quite successful.

Today's fire briefing was crowded with incoming and outgoing fire teams. Brad McBratney, outgoing Incident Commander, and members of his team wished to pass their thanks to the Portal-Rodeo community, saying again how much they've enjoyed working here. Wayne Cook is the incoming Incident Commander. The two fire teams share the same approach of using patient long-term monitoring and control strategies, and the two have obviously worked together over many years––old friends were catching up with each other.

The rains reached Columbus, New Mexico, last night! And here in the Chiricahuas, the spectacular sunset was caused by clouds, not smoke. Sharma Hutchinson reported seeing lightning last night as she returned from dinner. Many folks in our area know the long wait, through drought, for rain––days and nights when it seems that rain is all we wish for. A fire intensifies that longing, and now a hint of relief is in the air.

Sunset over the Peloncillo Mountains
(Photo by Narca)

Watch for tarantulas! As humidity rises immediately before the monsoon, the male tarantulas emerge in search of females. When I start seeing tarantulas, it nearly always means that a good rain is only one to three days away!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Renewed Suppression of Horseshoe Fire

The Horseshoe Fire's continuing advance north has triggered new suppression efforts. It is still backing down drainages in South Fork Canyon, working its way toward the road. Suppression has become necessary to try to keep the fire from moving into the main Cave Creek Canyon. On the map, the deep red area burned yesterday, and the solid red line means that the fire is actively burning along those edges. The fire is considered out only along the solid black line. So far, 3230 acres have burned.

The fire map shows lumpy black chains (see small green arrows) where the proposed fire lines will be cut today, including retreat lanes for the fire crews. The lines will then be in place in case it becomes necessary to set a backfire that would burn upslope into the advancing Horseshoe. The lines are in the vicinity of the South Fork picnic area (blue box on left).

I've cropped this map less tightly, so that you can see the location of Portal, boxed in blue at the northeast corner of the map. A blue arrow points to the Southwest Research Station. Another small blue box is around Portal Peak to the east of the active fire.

Work on the water bars along Division R of the perimeter line was finished yesterday, an effort which should moderate erosion when the rains come.

Soon the team here will be transitioning to a new fire team under the command of Wayne Cook, and preparations for that change have begun. Today the Incident Command Post will be moving north along Highway 80 about one mile from its current position next to the Chiricahua Desert Museum. There they will have a real office building, in what Noel calls the "opera house." It's the former health food store. Stop in and say hi!

We extend our gratitude to the departing fire team––many thanks for a job well done!

Happy Solstice on this longest day of the year! Let's celebrate with a rain dance.

Army Ants

Years ago, I joined Lee Harper for a World Wildlife Fund trip into the Brazilian Amazon. Lee had studied army ants in rainforest near Manaus, setting out to learn how big a forest patch needed to be in order to retain its army ants and the obligate antbirds, which need to follow army ants in order to survive. Lee developed a novel method of transporting ants into variously-sized forest fragments.

Army ants don't build permanent nests. Instead their colonies roam unceasingly through the forest, preying upon insects and other small animals in their path. But they do go through two phases, a nomadic phase lasting about 2 weeks, when their food needs are greater, and a stationary phase lasting about three weeks, when the colony protects the queen and her eggs in a bivouac formed of living ants. During the nomadic phase, the bivouac's location changes nightly. During the stationary phase, they still do some raiding, but return afterwards to the same bivouac.

Army ant column in Guyana (Photo by Narca)

When the ants bivouac, they form a living nest of the interlocking legs and mandibles of as many as a million ants, protecting the queen and her new brood at the center. This living nest is complete with chambers, bridges and corridors.

Lee would capture the queen and place her on crossed sticks inside a very large metal garbage can. Then he'd wait for the colony to bivouac around her. Once the ants had formed their living nest, he would place the lid on the garbage can and duct-tape it shut. Then he could place the entire colony on a backpack frame and carry it into a forest fragment. If the forest fragment was large enough (say, 100 hectares), the ants would stay. Otherwise they marched in a straight line out of the forest patch, setting out in a random direction across the denuded land in search of a forest big enough to support them.

Lee quickly learned to be sure that the lid of the garbage can was well-secured!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Horseshoe Fire Briefing & Map

At this morning's briefing in Portal, fire team leaders summarized yesterday's work and laid out the tasks for today. The fire's behavior yesterday was somewhat unexpected, because the big cliffs failed to delay it as much as had been anticipated. As the new fire map shows, the fire continues to burn north along the ridge in the high Chiricahua Mountains, southwest of Portal Peak. Over 3000 acres have burned, at a cost of nearly $9 million. The fire is actively burning over roughly 400 acres and remains 25% contained.

Blue arrow shows where water bars will be put into place today to moderate erosion along the fire control line.

In about 2 or 3 days, the team may move to moderate the downslope spread of the fire into lower South Fork, but at the moment that action is premature. This map shows a number of MAP, or Management Action Point, lines. When the fire crosses those lines, it triggers various responses from the fire team. Many of the MAP lines shown here are new and have been designated since the Type 1 team gave us a summary of the initial seven lines: I'll have to find out what the new lines represent. 

The MAPs help to guide strategy: if the fire were to reach MAP 3, it could have the future consequences of possible loss of structures and unacceptable resource damage, and would likely trigger evacuation notices for cabins and homes from South Fork to Portal. Obviously no one wants that to happen, and I'm guessing that new containment work being planned would be designed to prevent the fire's spread to that and other MAP lines. The fire's reaching MAP 5 would result in unacceptable damage to the South Fork watershed, and the fire team's work above Maple Camp (where the fire is now contained) has thus far prevented that from happening.

Included in this fire map are activity centers for several pairs of Spotted Owls; special care is being taken there to moderate the effects of the fire.

The crews have finished most of the water bars in Divisions A and B of the fire perimeter, and today will start building water bars in Division R (shown on the map). Chipping operations along the main Cave Creek Road are finished––and looking very good!––and cut firewood is being hauled to the Visitor Center, where the rumor is that it will be sold. Brushing and chipping continue along the South Fork road and picnic area.

The South Fork and Herb Martyr roads remain closed.

Today's weather conditions could spawn a dry thunderstorm, and crews were cautioned that lightning is a hazard.

Yesterday a fire team rescued a lost boy who had become separated from his parents when he went in search of ladybugs (obviously a lad whose passion is right in synch with that of many Portaleños!).

Woodpeckers in the Chiricahuas:
Acorn, Ladder-backed, Hairy & Arizona
(Watercolor & Gouache by Narca)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Burn in South Fork

Today while participating in the annual census of Elegant Trogons in the Chiricahua Mountains, I had the opportunity to go into South Fork with a firefighter, Dario Villarreal, as high as the burn. What I saw couldn't have looked better!

South Fork burn (Photos by Narca)

Richard Webster, who also surveyed for trogons with a firefighter, had the territory above mine and the highest in the drainage. He reported that 80% of the south slope of his area was burned, and in a few places the intensity was high enough to take out trees. But in most of his territory, the fire had only taken out the understory, achieving a great low-intensity burn.

Dario at the South Fork burn

Although we had guessed from the fire map that Maple Camp had been burned, it actually has not been touched. The big maples are intact, and it's necessary to go another quarter-mile above the Camp to reach the area where the fire burned into the creek bottom.  These photos show the charred understory, with an intact canopy. Maples within the burn were scorched, but most are still green. Even some areas of moss on the rocky ground survived!

Scorched maple above, and surviving moss below

We couldn't have wished for a better low-intensity burn, which reduced accumulated fuels and conferred future protection from catastrophic fire.

Of course, the Horseshoe Fire still burns high on the ridge to the south of South Fork, and continues to back into the upper reaches of the canyon above the trailhead. We won't know the final results until the monsoon rains extinguish it, but folks in the Forest Service must be very pleased with results so far.

South Fork burn above Maple Camp

When Rick Taylor and Glenn Klingler finish tabulating the census results, they will tell us the tally of trogons. In my area, we heard a trogon several times in the vicinity of Log Canyon, at the lowest edge of our territory, but didn't see him. (Protocol required us to stay at the center of the territory for the first three hours.) So Dario didn't see a trogon yet, but was treated to Painted Redstart, Red-faced Warbler, and Zone-tailed Hawk, among others. When Dario left South Fork at noon, he was headed for the fire in the Huachucas. Perhaps a trogon will find him there!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Horseshoe Fire: Strategies

At last night's community meeting in Portal regarding the Horseshoe Fire, the fire team gave us a glimpse into how their strategies are built. Sam Amato (an analyst of long-term fire behavior) has modeled the fire, using local topography, weather patterns, and knowledge of fire behavior, to map the Horseshoe's predicted behavior over the next 7 and 14 days.

Probability of fire spread in 7 days, given no suppression

Operations Chief George Johnson noted that "all models are wrong––some are useful." And indeed the usefulness of these two models is obvious. By looking at the most likely flow of fire through the landscape, the fire planners can see the most important points to choke off the fire to prevent its spread into sensitive areas. Sometimes those points can be worked on the ground, but in terrain this rugged, aerial attack is usually more practical and much safer for the firefighters. Even when a fire can only be dampened or delayed at those check points, it helps, buying us more time for the rains to arrive.

I also found some comfort in looking at the worst case scenario presented by the 14-day model, and noting just how extremely low the chances are that that worst case would happen: it's less than 0.2%! The worst case scenario also isn't as bad as imagination would make it. None of the fire officials last night were willing to say positively that the fire won't reach Portal, but they all believed that the likelihood is extremely low.

Rains are falling now in Mexico, and the meteorologist said this morning that with luck they could reach the Chiricahuas sometime next week.

The type of fire team now working on the Horseshoe Fire specializes in long-term strategy. The initial Type 1 team had a different mission, that of overwhelming the incident.

At this morning's briefing to the fire crews, the day's plan was laid out and an updated fire map posted.

Fire map at June 18 briefing
Left blue box: South Fork picnic area. Right blue box: Portal Peak

Today's planned operations include continuing to brush and chip along Forest Road 42, beginning to brush the South Fork Road, checking yet again for any smoke or hotspots in the South Fork bottom, and sending a team to the fire line at "B" and "A" along the perimeter (see blue lines on map). Along "B" and "A" the team will be putting in water bars to reduce erosion in the fire perimeter, once the rains arrive. They were cautioned to watch for illegal immigrants and smugglers, because the new fire line provides a much easier trail for illegal border-crossers to use.

Along the fire margins, crews have been "cold-trailing," testing by hand to see whether the soil is cold, or retains heat. A few smokes have broken out within the main burn, as remaining fuel continues to dry out and begins to smolder.

Tomorrow's census of Elegant Trogons will be held, although only people trained to work with wildfires will be allowed into South Fork. At least three such folks are also birders and are familiar with trogons. We'll meet this evening at 6 PM at the Visitor Center in Cave Creek Canyon to organize the effort.

Incident Commander Brad McBratney spoke to our attitude as a community toward this crisis. Being in crisis mode for a long period is a strain. It will help if we recognize that we have time here, nothing is imminent, and "it's a marathon, not a sprint." We need to pace ourselves, to draw on our stamina, and to release that stress as much as possible.

So, a question for Hizzonner the Mayor: shall we have a community gathering to hear your latest joke collection, or compilation of urban legends?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Active Day for Horseshoe Fire

Fire briefing on June 17 (Photos by Narca)

The fire crew, which is working to contain the Horseshoe Fire that continues to burn in the Chiricahua Wilderness, assembled at six this morning for its daily briefing. Yesterday's hot, dry, windy conditions did indeed light up the fire, although it continues to behave fairly sedately, advancing at a rate of about a quarter-mile a day. Yesterday about 100 more acres burned in the northwest region of the fire, backing down into two canyons above the South Fork picnic area (blue arrow), and bringing the total to 2862 acres burned.

Similar fire behavior is expected today: the fire is backing downslope along the ground with flames about 2 feet high, then roaring back up through the pre-heated canopy. Crews are being cautioned that spotting is possible (but not likely) up to 1/2 mile from the fire. New starts in lighter fuels could move as fast as 1/4 mile an hour, but overall the fire is expected to move only about 1/4 mile closer to South Fork today. Water drops will continue to be used to dampen the fire's movement.

Higher up, where the fire burned earlier into the bottom of South Fork around Maple Camp, it is thought to be extinguished, and the crew will be double-checking that today. Similarly, in Log Canyon mop-up work is thought to have quenched the fire.

Fire map at morning briefing, June 17
Blue arrow: South Fork picnic area. Blue box: Portal Peak

This fire map shows the secured area in the west and south with a black boundary. The percentage of containment remains at about 25%. Inactive edges on the north and south of the burn are shown with a red dotted line. There mop-up work continues, to be sure that further ignition won't become a problem. The active edge of the fire to the north and east is shown by a solid red line. I drew a blue box around Portal Peak for your reference. So that you can more easily see the recent spread, here is a map from a day or two ago:

Today's conditions are expected to be similar to yesterday's, with less wind, perhaps gusting to 28 mph. Humidity is still very low, bottoming out at only 4%. Temperature should reach into the high 90ºs in Rodeo. This morning's light winds from the north and northeast should blow the fire back onto itself, but this afternoon they will shift again, coming from the west-southwest, and pick up strength. By afternoon we could be seeing big columns of smoke, as we did yesterday. The fire will soon be reaching another series of high bluffs, those sentinel cliffs of lower South Fork, which should interrupt its spread.

Horseshoe Fire in late afternoon, June 16

One road has re-opened: the back-country road that runs from Rustler Park to Long Park. The Herb Martyr and South Fork roads remain closed.

Border Patrol alerted the fire team that activity of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers has heated up as much as the fire, saying that they are "running all over" the Chiricahuas, so firefighters have to be alert to more than just fire safety. Firefighting near the international border brings a host of new problems to the task. Not only do firefighters have to worry about encountering armed, potentially hostile, illegal border crossers, they also may find interference with their communications originating in Mexico, and unattended vehicles "will be damaged or stolen." The Forest Service advises all firefighters that "threats to employees are present 24/7/365."

It occurred to me that one benefit of this fire is that it will burn up some of the tons of garbage that illegal entrants have dumped along their travel corridors in the Chiricahuas.

One another subject, Portaleños will be pleased to hear that we have a new acronym: POPC, in reference to staying hydrated while working the fire lines: pee often, pee clear. One of the fire officials from Montana was saying that he's finding the heat "brutal." With all the gear the firefighters have to wear while engaged in hard physical work, the heat must indeed be hard to take––your efforts are very appreciated! 

The current incident commander, Brad McBratney, commented on the positive attitude he's finding in the work environment here––an attitude that began when the Type 1 crew first came, and continues today. 

Everyone is invited to come to tonight's community meeting (7 PM at the Portal Fire & Rescue classroom), where we'll receive an update and be shown a powerpoint presentation on the fire. I'm hoping that we'll also learn whether the annual trogon census can be held on Saturday.

Factoid: sales of chewing tobacco at the Portal Store skyrocketed with the arrival of the fire crews.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Guyana's Emerald Forest

With over 80% of its rainforest intact, Guyana holds splendid riches for travelers who wish to explore those towering forests. After first journeying there on a "fam" tour, I return as soon as possible for more in-depth scouting with Alan and our friends, Noel Snyder and Jim Shiflett.

With the Brazilian Shield, the ancient Guianan Shield forms the primeval geological heart of South America. There we find the iconic Neotropical birds––toucans, macaws, parrots, cotingas, antbirds, cocks-of-the-rock, hummingbirds.

Let's look at just one spot: Atta Rainforest Lodge, deep in the Iwokrama Forest. The Iwokrama's protected lowland tropical rainforest is renowned for its spectacular biodiversity. Jaguars roam the forest by-ways, and monkeys chitter overhead. Giant River Otters roll in the small stream channels, beneath the slender, leafy perches of brilliant Green-tailed Jacamars and Crimson Topaz hummingbirds.

Green-tailed Jacamar (Photo by Narca)

By day the four of us roam the forest trails with our local guides, Ron Allicock and Archer, both Macushi Indians, and both deeply attuned to every nuance of this wilderness. Huge Red-necked Woodpeckers (the cousin of our Ivory-bill) are abundant and conspicuous. We find one nest, and Noel stations himself nearby to photograph this spectacular woodpecker as it makes forays to and from the nest cavity.

Red-necked Woodpecker at nest in a termite-shrouded tree
(Photo by Noel Snyder)

Soon we become aware of antbird activity and of busy columns of army ants. Then we find the advancing front of this army, as well as a vantage point for watching the phenomenon. First a trickle of scouts reaches the new region, and every small animal in the vicinity begins to flee. Soon the main army arrives, and the leaf litter boils with literally tens of thousands of foraging ants.

Birds are quick to snap up an easy meal among the fleeing insects. Antbirds and Gray-winged Trumpeters patrol the lower regions; woodcreepers grab insects from a few feet higher up. Even insects that fly all the way into the canopy may find toucans or other birds hungry for a meal. I once watched a Barred Forest Falcon in Belize, as it perched a few feet off the ground, intent on finding a meal in the midst of the commotion.

Gray-winged Trumpeter (Photo by Alan Craig)

Standing (carefully!) at the advancing front of an army ant swarm is a memorable, remarkable experience of Rainforest––and an experience that Guyana regularly grants to visitors. I look forward to returning in November with our Naturalist Journeys group. (You're invited!)

Ron Allicock, our local Guyana guide
(Photo by Noel Snyder)

Fire Meeting Rescheduled for Thursday

The community meeting originally set for tonight has been rescheduled for tomorrow night at 7 PM at the Portal Fire & Rescue classroom. We'll learn then how yesterday's attempt fared, when a crew was to be dropped in to work a fire line along the eastern flank of the active front of the Horseshoe Fire. As the fire moves into gentler terrain, it has become possible to attack it more directly, at least along that edge. Yesterday was calm, and the crews seized the opportunity.

Today, however, gusty winds are again blowing at 20-25 mph, humidity is falling into single digits (about 8%), and a high of 98º F is predicted. All of that intensifies fire behavior, as the photo taken this afternoon from my house vividly shows.

Horseshoe Fire on June 16
(Photo by Narca)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Strategy Shift for Horseshoe Fire

At this morning's fire briefing in Portal, USFS District Ranger Bill Edwards spoke of a shift in strategy from letting the Horseshoe Fire burn through exceedingly rugged terrain in the Chiricahua Mountains, to an attempt today to restrain its downslope movement along the eastern margin of the active fire front. After burning to the northeast over the past few days, the fire has finally entered somewhat gentler terrain along the eastern front, and, after a reconnaissance yesterday, the fire commanders decided that it is safe enough to send in a crew to try to secure that margin. A primary goal is to protect homes and other structures on the lower eastern slopes of the mountains from the spreading fire.

Bill Edwards addresses fire crew
(Photos by Narca)

In the north and northwest of the active fire front, water drops were used last night to manage the fire, with the goal of keeping the fire on the high ridge leading toward Portal Peak, and not backing downslope towards Cave Creek Canyon and Portal. Conditions won't allow for the fire to be fully contained or extinguished until the rains come.

Fire map of activity through June 14

In fact, we are entering a period of greater instability, as weather becomes hotter and drier, and the fire's behavior could become much more challenging to manage. Crews are taking advantage of the opportunity they are offered right now to manage the fire along the less-rugged eastern margin.

Chiricahuas on June 14

Yesterday evening, a small plume of smoke was visible from Foothills Road (and even from I-10). Fire activity heats up each afternoon. For the past two or three days, the fire has mainly moved through manzanita shrubs, a fire-adapted vegetation type which should recover well.

Back in South Fork, the fire team continues to hold the fire at the canyon bottom, where a good, low-intensity burn is being achieved.

Another community meeting will be held tomorrow night, Wednesday, at 7 PM at the Portal Fire Station. We'll be introduced to the new fire team commander and given an update. 

Again, thank you to the very professional fire crews who have been working so hard to protect both the community and the ecological values of the Chiricahuas. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Quick Horseshoe Fire Update

The Horseshoe Fire still burns in the Chiricahua Wilderness, working its way northeast along the ridge leading toward Portal Peak. As of this morning, about 2900 acres had burned, and the fire still stands at 25% containment.

Horseshoe Fire on June 13

This fire map shows continued filling-in of the burn along South Fork (drawn in a heavy blue line so you can see it more easily), in the vicinity of Maple Camp. The burn in the tributary of Log Canyon has filled in slightly, but not as much as I had surmised from what was told me.

The red spreading to the northeast shows the most active front of the fire. At the moment, a large plume of smoke is towering behind my house and behind Portal Peak. Here's a small caution to the fire information folks about communicating with the community: we're being repeatedly told that the fire is creeping, moving in increments of feet rather than acres, yet during the recent windy, three-day period (June 10-12), as we were being told that the fire was only creeping, the area of the burn jumped by about 500 acres. I'm sure that the fire team wants to keep everyone calm, yet we also need to know the truth. Please tell me if my critique is unwarranted... perhaps my idea of "creeping" is different from yours.

Horseshoe Fire behind Portal Peak
(Photos by Narca)

At this morning's fire meeting, people were told that June 22 will be a critical date, in terms of the fuel reaching a crucial level of dryness. At that point, fire behavior could become more intense. We need rain!

Today as we drove up to the high country, we passed a fire crew brushing and chipping along Cave Creek Canyon road immediately below the Paradise junction. Efforts to safeguard the canyon and the village of Portal are ongoing, and we thank the crews for their hard work.

Fire crew brushing the road in upper Cave Creek Canyon

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Guyana's Harpy Eagle Nest!

Ron Allicock, a very skilled Macushi guide from the deep Guyanan rainforest, emailed me that a Harpy Eagle nest near his village now holds one young chick. (Isn't it amazing how email now connects someone in a remote Amazonian thatched cottage to another person in an old adobe art gallery on the US western frontier?) That nest is cause for big excitement!

Harpy Eagle (Pen & ink by Narca)

Spectacular Harpy Eagles are among the world's most powerful, largest raptors. A female stands over 3 feet tall and has a wingspan of about 6.5 feet. Sloths comprised the bulk of their diet in one study, supplemented by the occasional monkey, coati, kinkajou, or opossum. Harpies are critically endangered over much of their vast range. Intensive efforts to monitor the species have turned up about 60 nesting locales, almost all within the Amazon Basin.

Chicks fledge in about 6 months, then spend another 6 to 10 months dependent on their parents, as they learn the skills they need to survive in the rainforest. That timing gives me hope that the Harpy Eagles under Ron's watchful gaze will still be in the area when our Naturalist Journeys group goes to Guyana next November 15-24. (We still have a spot or two on the trip if you're interested! Check out the itinerary at www.naturalistjourneys.com/jcalendar/jc_guyana10.htm.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Horseshoe Fire Slowly Pushes Northeast

This morning's fire map shows the northerly movement through yesterday of the Horseshoe Fire. Today's moderately strong winds have been driving the fire further north than this map depicts, although not at a very fast rate. For reference, the blue box on the map is around Portal Peak, which the fire is approaching as it burns to the northeast.

Fire map on June 11

Since this map was printed, I was told that the fire has burned downslope more into the South Fork and Log Canyon drainages, filling in some previously unburned areas. This map also shows in the lower right corner the lightning-ignited Darnell Fire of 2002. Many people in the community will remember gathering in Rodeo that summer for our 4th of July festivities, against a backdrop of the Chiricahua Mountains aflame in the night: that was the Darnell Fire.

The photos below show smoke rising from behind those cliffs which frame Portal (and which hide any view of Portal Peak from town), and the last shows a column of smoke behind Portal Peak itself, taken from a vantage along the Portal-Rodeo Road.

Smoke from the Horseshoe Fire today in Portal
(Photos by Narca)

The Horseshoe Fire advances behind Portal Peak

Horseshoe Fire Behavior

Yesterday's milder winds drove the Horseshoe Fire a ways north along the spine of the Chiricahua Mountains. The fire encountered rocky bluffs which limited its northward spread and, to the east, sparse vegetation which limited its downslope spread.

In the critically important South Fork Canyon, moderate fire has continued to burn downslope as far as the main riparian corridor, filling in the previously unburned areas of the south slope. Also in South Fork's tributary of Log Canyon, fire is continuing to burn downhill and through the entire tributary.

Today and tomorrow winds are predicted to be stronger, sustained at about 25 mph, so, in our wait-and-see game... we'll wait and see!

I did pick up a new fire map and will post it this evening when I'm home. Here at the Chiricahua Gallery in Rodeo, technology is limited!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wind Coming to the Horseshoe Fire

At tonight's community meeting, the Type 1 fire team led by Dugger Hughes passed the torch to Roy Hall's team, which specializes in the patient monitoring of longer-term fires. Dugger joined Buck Wickham, District Ranger Bill Edwards, and others in updating the community and in fielding questions about the Horseshoe Fire, which has been burning in the Chiricahua Wilderness for more than two weeks.

For a quick summary, two main active fronts continue to burn, in the southwest corner where fire backed downhill into brush, and in the northeast corner where a long finger of fire spread uphill into timber and brush, producing some large columns of smoke. Today the fire was more active than it has been in recent days. Thus far about 2375 acres have burned. The fire line has still held at the South Fork riparian corridor, and is not yet burning on the opposite (north) wall of that canyon. So far, areas around known Spotted Owl nests have either not burned, or burned at a low intensity.

South Fork (Photo by Narca)

I don't have an updated fire map to post for you, but will try to find one in the next couple of days.

Dinah asked how much of the canopy has been burned within the active zone and was given an estimate of 20%, indicating thus far a low-intensity burn overall, with many of the trees expected to survive. Bill Edwards noted that the north-facing slopes are still moist and resisting the flames. Southern exposures, however, are starting to dry out and the fire could heat up there in particular.

The next two or three days may prove more challenging, since sustained winds of 20-30 mph from the west and southwest are predicted––the first such sustained winds since the fire was ignited.

South Fork Canyon could become very hazardous if the wind drives the fire through there, so the road isn't likely to open anytime soon, and a decision about holding the annual census of Elegant Trogons will have to be made at the last minute. Likewise, the Herb Martyr Road and the road from Rustler Park to Long Park are both still closed, because fire could easily run into either of those areas. The main Cave Creek Canyon road is open, all the way to Rustler Park.

Official updates estimate the fire as 25% contained: Dugger arrived at that figure by studying the fire perimeter and calculating how much of it is now "black-lined" and therefore the fire is unlikely to break out again at those points. The containment date of June 15 will probably be pushed forward by as much as a month, to mid-July. Only the summer rains will douse this fire.

Delane sent her love to "the boys of the Dalton gang" who wave at her every day when she goes out for her evening walk. They are a Hot Shot crew from southern California. As fire preparations are completed and fire personnel continue to be diverted to other fires, the "Dalton gang" is leaving. From a high of nineteen Hot Shot teams, four are currently working the Horseshoe Fire. That number will be pared down further to two Hot Shot crews. However, if danger from the fire suddenly intensifies, we are assured that more teams can very quickly be returned to the Chiricahuas.

Dugger, in closing, reiterated what other members of the fire team have told us, saying that Portal-Rodeo is "the best community I've worked with in a very long time." Portaleños remain deeply appreciative and very impressed by the professional, efficient, competent work of "our" firefighters. We've been treated to a close-up look at how an emergency team can function when they really have their act together, and we welcome Roy Hall and his monitoring team to the continuing saga.

Butterflies in the High Chiricahuas

After this evening's community meeting about the Horseshoe Fire, I'll post another fire update here. It has spread only a little since the last update, and most of the recent burning has been in the interior of the new burn.

Noel, Fran and Dick up to their ears in iris at Barfoot Park
(Photos by Narca)

On Sunday I journeyed into the high Chiricahuas with Dick and Fran Zweifel and Noel Snyder to see what beautiful bugs might be flying. The iris-filled meadows of Barfoot and Rustler Parks were drawing in Western Tiger Swallowtails, Silver-spotted Skippers, Gray Hairstreaks, and a variety of sulphurs and blues, including this Acmon Blue.

Acmon Blue

Mylitta Crescents were courting.

Mylitta Crescent

East Turkey Creek is still flowing strongly, its margins abloom with Golden Columbine and Fendler's Monkeyflower. Here a Nais Metalmark (quite rare in the Chiricahuas) was chasing ladybugs away from a patch of Ceanothus shrubs. I was only able to get a poor photo of this beauty, but here it is:

Nais Metalmark

Golden Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha