The towering Pinaleño Mountains near Safford were ravaged by fire, then scoured by flooding this summer — and now restoration experts are working to stabilize and restore the tortured landscape.
The Frye Fire, ignited by a lightning strike on June 7, blackened more than 48,400 acres in the popular range surrounding 10,717-foot Mount Graham.
Monsoon rains helped douse the fire, but they also brought flooding that damaged roads and campgrounds and clogged drainage channels with logs and other woody debris. Observatories on the mountain and other structures escaped damage.
Bottom line: The range — from chapparal regions at lower elevations to pine and fir forests on the mountain heights — were left in need of immediate stabilization and long-term restoration.
Members of the Burned Area Emergency Response team (BAER) have been hard at work since the fire was contained in late July. BAER teams are used by the U.S. Forest Service to manage post-fire response actions on public land — and in this case, the team’s task is huge.
“This is a long-term issue — not something we’ll solve this fall,” said Dean McAlister, a member of the BAER team. “Restoration work on the mountain will go on for several years to come.”
Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said work will run the gamut from protecting and restoring a functioning watershed to making fire-affected trails and campgrounds safe for a resumption of public use.
“It’s not the end of the story when a wildfire is out,” Schewel said. “There’s a lot of work to be done up there, and it will take some time.”
Several key areas of needed work have been identified and some work is underway, McAlister said. They include:
- Aerial seeding of high-burn impact sites. The seeding, conducted in the past week by a pilot using a crop-dusting plane, covered 1,023 acres of burned land with barley seeds. “They will germinate within a week and put up a vegetative mass to help stabilize the soil,” McAlister said. “The barley functions for about two years and then we see natural vegetation reestablish itself.”
- Channel clearing. “The intent was to clear designated stream channels of floatable debris to reduce impacts on road drainage structures,” McAlister said. “It was not completed due to the onset of heavy rains, which moved floatable debris and damaged roads and drainage structures.”
- Road stabilization and storm proofing. The work includes installing so-called rolling dips on some roads to move water across the travel way rather than under the roads in culverts.
- Protection and safety measures. Safety signage is to be installed on major roads leading into fire areas to warn visitors of the hazards of entering a heavily impacted fire area.
PROGRESS SO FAR
Swift Trail, the main road into the Pinaleños, has been cleared and opened to Ladybug Saddle. The saddle is about 25 miles up the road from its starting point along U.S. 191 south of Safford. The road opening allows public access to Arcadia Campground, the Turkey Flat summer home area and other sites, but areas above the saddle remain closed to public access.
“On a given day, we have maybe 20 people working up here” — some of them operating heavy equipment such as a grader, a loader, an excavator and dump trucks, McAlister said.
“In the Wet Canyon area, crews have been working for the past two weeks to clear debris from the area,” he said. “It was a popular recreation area, but recreational facilities disappeared with the first flood through the canyon. Woody debris formed a logjam in the canyon.”
Schewel noted that an area of special concern was a culvert and bridge on the Swift Trail at Wet Canyon. The culvert was built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the 1930s.
“Floodwaters and debris exceeded the capacity of the area around and between the existing and old culvert/bridge at Wet Canyon,” Schewel noted in a news release.
The flooding debris damaged the highway bridge and threatened one of the foundations, she said.
“Loss of a foundation would result in bridge failure and loss of road access to the mountain,” Schewel said. “The only feasible solution in the short term was removal of all or the vast majority of the Civilian Conservation Corps-era stone masonry culvert/bridge at Wet Canyon.”
The removal of the old culvert structure would result in a clear stream channel that could handle the stream flow and debris of boulders, wood and ash without damaging the nearby highway bridge, Schewel said.
Removal of the old structure was completed this week. Schewel noted that Forest and Arizona Department of Transportation officials plan to meet with the public in the near future to discuss possibilities for commemoration of the structure.
Removal of the culvert and continuing work elsewhere along the Swift Trail have increased restoration expenses.
McAlister said approximately $300,000 was allocated for restoration work so far.
“We will be making an additional funding request” to continue necessary work, he said.
McAlister said the amount of additional funding needed isn’t certain but that it could be in the range of $600,000 to $800,000.