As fire near Portal spreads, it's hotshots to the rescue

2011-05-11T00:00:00Z 2011-05-11T16:01:21Z As fire near Portal spreads, it's hotshots to the rescueDoug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 11, 2011 12:00 am  • 

PORTAL - A wailing wind whipped up clouds of charred ash as a team of elite firefighters sought out smoldering hot spots along a rugged ridge and snuffed them dead out.

Their work Tuesday was but one battle in what's shaping up as a long campaign to control the fast-growing Horseshoe 2 Fire near the hamlet of Portal in the Chiricahua Mountains.

The human-caused blaze had blackened more than 10,000 acres as of Tuesday afternoon, said Bob Love, a planning section chief at a command center in the nearby community of Rodeo, N.M.

About 300 people are working the fire, which so far had caused no serious injuries. No structures had been destroyed, but that could change as the blaze spreads.

"We have no containment at this time," said Karen Takai, an information officer at the fire site. "This could take a while. There are still lots of flashy fuels out there. There's a potential for those fuels to ignite, and then we're off to the races again."

Takai noted a spot of possible good news: Fire officials were evaluating whether to lift an evacuation recommendation that led some 200 people to leave their homes.

"We expect to make an evacuation announcement by 8 a.m. Wednesday," Takai said.

SQUAD READY WITH TOOLS

Helping make such an announcement possible were three members of the elite Prescott Hotshots firefighting team.

Justin Baxter, Sean Weston and Jason McDade trekked two rugged miles to the ridge, where they used firefighters' hand tools - a Pulaski, an adze hoe and a combination tool - to dig out and smother still-smoldering plant stalks and roots.

"With winds like we're having, this is an awfully volatile situation," Baxter said. "We're looking for ash pits and stump holes that still hold heat. There's a big potential for these things to blow or roll over the hand line (a small fire break) and reignite."

Of special concern were the partly burned agaves and yuccas along the ridge.

"These things hold a lot of heat," Baxter said. "They burn down to bulbs, roll down a hill and reignite the fire."

Hotshot crew members, who sometimes hike six or more miles to reach the front lines in a fight against wildfire, said the meticulous mop-up of a burned area is as critical as an initial attack on a fire.

Just maintaining the fitness to reach a fire site on foot calls for rigorous training, Weston said.

"We often train twice a day (when not fighting fires) to stay in elite physical shape," he said. "The mental part is also critical. It's important to be calm and collected - to keep a straight head during those hazardous times."

Why subject one's self to such hard toil, to such risk?

"It's very satisfying to take care of the land," McDade said.

Added Baxter: "It's not a bad office we work in, either. We can't complain."

PROTECTING RESEARCHERS

At the Southwestern Research Station, five miles up the mountain from Portal on the closed Portal Road, the staff came to work Tuesday, sharing the site with a crew of firefighters who cleared brush away from buildings and prepared to defend the site from approaching fire.

Director Dawn Wilson said the fire this year is producing more anxious moments than the first Horseshoe Fire, which burned mostly undergrowth and downed vegetation for more than a month until the monsoon rains fell in early July 2010.

"That was a slow fire because we had winter rain and we had snow," Wilson said. "This fire is fueled by wind and the dryness of no snow, so it's a little more intense."

"I'm not feeling better until the wind dies down," she said Tuesday afternoon.

The research station is a field station for study by biologists, geologists and anthropologists under the direction of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

FIRE RESTRICTIONS

Coronado National Forest has issued fire restrictions across forest lands.

The increased fire danger has caused forest officials to carry out the restrictions through either July 18 or when the danger decreases, according to a news release.

The following actions are prohibited on forest land:

• Building or using a fire, campfire, charcoal, coal, or wood stove fire, including within a developed, recreation site or improved site. The use of petroleum-fueled stoves, lanterns, or heating devices is allowed.

• Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.

• Using an explosive.

• Operating an internal combustion engine, except for motor vehicles.

• Operating or using any internal or external combustion engine without a spark arresting device properly installed, maintained and in effective working order.

• Welding.

• Using a motor vehicle off national forest system roads.

• Discharging a firearm, except while in a lawful hunt.

Star reporter Tom Beal contributed to this report. Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4192.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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