The Horseshoe 2 Fire in Southeastern Arizona is now officially contained after burning across 222,954 acres — about 80 percent of the Chiricahua Mountains, the largest of the Sky Island ranges of the Coronado National Forest.
It is now the fourth-largest wildfire in Arizona history.
Some areas, such as the tall timber near popular campsites at 8,400-foot Rustler’s Park, burned destructively.
U. S. Forest Service officials estimate that about 20 percent of the Chiricahuas burned with enough intensity to kill off entire stands of trees and sterilize the soil beneath them.
But not everything within the fire perimeter burned and in places the fire will eventually prove beneficial, said Mike Johnson, spokesman for the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team that is assessing the severity of the blaze.
One of the BAER team’s first tasks is to pinpoint areas where denuded watersheds could produce floods during upcoming monsoon rains. Where slopes are severely torched, rain will run off quickly, eroding soil, unleashing rocks, clogging streams with debris and creating record flows in the creeks downstream.
The badly burned areas will be targeted for stream cleanout and bank and slope protection, said Johnson.
Portal resident Narca Moore-Craig said area residents are concerned and preparing for floods.
“We saw flooding after the (1994) Rattlesnake Fire,” she said. “This fire is drawing on a much larger watershed.” After the Rattlesnake Fire, lower Cave Creek near Portal clogged with boulders and Rucker Canyon Lake to the southwest filled with silt. It is now a meadow.
Moore-Craig said Friday that she is most interested in seeing what burned in the upper reaches of the South Fork of Cave Creek, one of the world’s premier birding areas.
She will be hiking it today as part of an annual count of Elegant trogons, parrot-sized migratory tropical birds that nest in the riparian canyons of Southern Arizona. The U.S. Forest Service made an exception to its forest closure order to allow volunteers, accompanied by Forest Service guides, into the Cave Creek drainage.
The fire itself is still smoldering in places, said a spokesman for the fourth incident management team on the fire. It won’t go out until the region receives significant rain and must be monitored and patrolled until then.
“We want a thorough soaking of the forest,” said Forest Service spokesman Ron Kaczor.
Since its start on May 8, the Horseshoe 2 Fire cost $50 million to fight, and has been managed by three inter-agency teams assigned to the largest and most complex fires.
None was able to directly contain the fire in the steep canyons of the Chiricahuas, where fierce winds blew sparks across the fire lines. The focus for much of the fire was protection of the Cave Creek area, which hosts a diversity of wildlife, and protection of communities adjacent to the national forest.
Where they couldn’t stop it, fire strategists slowed the fire, igniting ridge tops and allowing fire to burn downhill slowly.
In all, nine homes and 14 outbuildings burned, including the historic Barfoot fire lookout.
Rick Taylor, a bird expert who leads the annual trogon count, said Friday that he is anxious to see his home in Whitetail Canyon at the northern reach of the Chiricahuas.
Taylor just got back from an expedition in the Pribilof Islands with his Tucson-based Borderlands Tours. His home did not burn, but he’s seen photos of the area around it. “It looked like a bomb went off behind the house up there on the hill.”
He said he was “really grateful” for the hard work of the fire crews. “I’ll have lived there 40 years in August. I think of the Chiricahuas as the mother land and losing that would have really hurt.”
With the fire contained, the focus now shifts to a long-term rehabilitation plan.
Johnson said satellite maps of the area show a pretty good mix of burned and unburned forest — the “mosaic” that allows a forest to restore itself over time.
Johnson said his National Park Service colleagues have told him that the Chiricahua National Monument, where 12,163 acres of the “wonderland of rocks” on the west slopes of the mountains were affected, “looked like a really healthy, moderate burn.”
“Some things are well-adapted,” said Moore-Craig, a biologist who leads art and nature tours. “The madrones, the oaks, those should come back fairly quickly.
The big timber atop the mountains is another story, she said. “The areas that received a high-intensity burn, from what I’m hearing, will not recover in our lifetime.”
Contact reporter Tom Beal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4158.