Finely tuned firefighting strategies - and a touch of good fortune - kept a raging wildfire from torching one of the ecological gems of Southern Arizona: Ramsey Canyon.
The Monument Fire blazed over more than 30,000 acres in the Huachuca Mountains last month - but the Ramsey Canyon Preserve of The Nature Conservancy narrowly escaped the flames.
Known widely for its diverse array of birds and other wildlife, the preserve near Sierra Vista could reopen later this month.
"That fire was breathing down our neck," said Brooke Gebow, a preserves manager for the conservancy.
"But the crews (of firefighters) did a great job," Gebow said. "The fire was stopped above the Ramsey Canyon drainage. We still have a nice little green gem on the slopes of the Huachucas."
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Heidi Schewel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said saving Ramsey required "a combination of strategy and good fortune."
"The fire could have entered Ramsey Canyon from above, from the side or from below," Schewel said. "Where the strategy came in was burning out along the mouth of (nearby) Carr Road to keep the fire from entering the mouth of Ramsey Canyon."
That strategic approach kept the fire from creeping into the canyon from below.
"At the middle and upper elevations, air support with strategic water and retardant drops kept the fire from entering from above or the side," Schewel said. "The air support really made a difference."
And the good fortune?
"It was that the winds died down" just as the fire could have made a run toward the canyon, Schewel said. "When you have high winds, that can ground your air support and push the fire to make fast runs."
DAYS OF DOUBT
Gebow said the fire came "probably within a couple of miles" of the upper-canyon part of the preserve - a 300-acre parcel owned by the Conservancy amid national forest land.
But during the wind-driven height of the blaze in mid-June, it appeared the preserve might go up in flames. "The fire marched steadily north," Gebow said. "Once it made it past Ash Canyon, serious talk began about Ramsey Canyon. Day to day, I was told to expect fire in the canyon."
In those days of doubt, fire crews and preserve staff members worked to thin vegetation - aiming to reduce fuels as the fire approached.
"Over the last six years or so, we've been doing quite a bit of thinning to be prepared for fire," Gebow said. "Starting about a week into the fire, we were provided crews that helped us expand the thinning work. ... The crews did a terrific job."
Still, the preserve visitors center, at an elevation of 5,500 feet, and the surrounding terrain remained vulnerable. As the fire raced through parts of nearby Miller Canyon, "my colleague Matt Killeen and I walked through the preserve and took pictures," Gebow said. It was "our moment of 'it might not look like this when we come back.' "
In the end, the canyon did look essentially the same when preserve workers returned to reopen buildings and replace books and other items that had been removed for safekeeping.
"The canyon still looks great despite the thinning blitz," Gebow said. "The crews left the preserve looking like a healthy woodland rather than a bad haircut."
Gebow said preserve staff members are "seeing plenty of wildlife as we move back in."
"Lots of hummingbirds are at the feeders," she said. "We're seeing the usual high deer numbers, plus a mother bear with two cubs."
If the scene is idyllic for now, Gebow and others aren't dropping their guard.
"We didn't have fire in the preserve this time," she said. "But we know something like this will happen again someday."
DID YOU KNOW?
A spring-fed stream and shady woodlands make Ramsey Canyon a mecca for bird-watching. One measure of the avian diversity: Up to 14 species of hummingbirds have been seen in the canyon.
For information on reopening of the Ramsey Canyon Preserve and directions call 1-520-378-2785.
"The canyon still looks great despite the thinning blitz. The crews left the preserve looking like a healthy woodland rather than a bad haircut."
Brooke Gebow, preserves manager for The Nature Conservancy
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at email@example.com or at 573-4192.