Expect more of the same costly, difficult-to-fight Arizona wildfires

2011-06-02T00:00:00Z 2011-08-24T11:50:00Z Expect more of the same costly, difficult-to-fight Arizona wildfiresBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 02, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The fire forecast for this month is continued hot, smoky, dangerous and expensive, with a good probability that smoke jumpers and air tankers will be flying in to a forested area near you.

Just about every hotshot crew, helicopter and air tanker under command of the regional agency that fights complex fires is currently assigned to big fires burning in Arizona and New Mexico.

In Arizona, that includes the Horseshoe 2 Fire, burning for 26 days in the Chiricahua Mountains; the Wallow Fire, which exploded over the past three days in the Bear Wallow Wilderness south of Alpine; and the fast-spreading grass fire near Arivaca known as the Murphy Fire.

Smaller fires with big potential break out daily, including one Wednesday near the Empire Ranch in Las Cienegas National Conservation Area north of Sonoita.

"The last two years, they've been predicting an active fire season, and it didn't happen. We knew it was coming this year, with everything so dry. There is no way to avoid it," said Heidi Schewel of the Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona.

Fortunately, said Mary Zabinski of the Southwest Incident Command Center in Albuquerque, the rest of the West is not yet fighting big fires.

Currently, the Southwest region of Arizona, New Mexico and a slice of west Texas has six heavy air tankers available to drop water and retardant to slow fires.

It has 13 single-engine air tankers, 11 heavy helicopters, five medium helicopters and 15 light ones.

Much of that helicopter fleet is on loan from Idaho and Colorado, where the fire season is later.

Resources are "pretty much unlimited unless we have a West-wide burst," Zabinski said.

In an active fire year, that can occur in mid- to late June when the north country has warmed and dried, and lightning precedes monsoon rain in southern New Mexico and Arizona, she said.

Ground forces are also rotated among the regions.

Four 20-person hotshot crews from California and one from Colorado are currently assigned to the Horseshoe 2 Fire.

The Wallow Fire has five California crews and one from Colorado.

The Murphy Fire, burning in grassland between Tubac and Arivaca south of Tucson, has crews from Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

That's in addition to the 21 crews from New Mexico and Arizona assigned in those states. The hotshots, or Type I teams, are the fittest and best-trained of the frontline firefighters, Zabinski said.

"They are born to work and miserable if they are not," Zabinski said.

On the big, complex fires, such as the Horseshoe 2 Fire, all those resources are managed by a Type 1 management team.

That team of 35 to 50 people consists of fire-behavior specialists, meteorologists, hydrologists and other specialists drawn from national parks and forests, and state agencies in the region.

Accountants are needed, for instance, to keep track of the $1 million a day being spent at the peak of the Horseshoe 2 Fire. Human-resource specialists supervise the 930 people working that fire on peak days. Part of each morning's briefing on the fire is an admonition to fill out those time sheets.

The teams work long days for two weeks before taking mandatory time off, building little cities at the edge of wilderness to provide food and shelter for the firefighting force.

It is an expensive operation. The Horseshoe 2 Fire, in three weeks, has cost more than $22 million.

Nationally, the U.S. Forest Service spent $2.567 billion on fire-fighting activities in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2010, according to President Obama's Fiscal Commission Report.

The Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, spent $975 million.

Those figures include money spent on fire prevention programs, fire science and rehabilitation.

 

Online: For information on major fires, go online to www.inciweb.org

Active fires in Arizona

Wallow Fire

The Wallow Fire continued to burn fast and fierce, night and day, through the heavily forested slopes of the Bear Wallow Wilderness, southwest of Alpine.

It had consumed 18,000 acres by Wednesday night.

Arizona 191 is closed from Alpine on the north to the Strayhorse Campground - a stretch that includes the popular campground and cabins at Hannagan Meadow.

Evacuations were ordered for the communities of Sprucedale, Beaver Creek Ranch, Beaverhead and Brentwood, and along Forest Road 26.

Campgrounds closed include West Fork and all of the campgrounds along the East Fork of the Black River.

Murphy Fire

The Murphy Fire continued to burn in grasslands between Tubac and Arivaca Wednesday, though cloud cover moderated its spread Wednesday.

Empire 2 Fire

The Empire 2 Fire started Wednesday in tall grass on the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, about 10 miles north of Sonoita.

It had burned 611 acres by Wednesday night but was 50 percent contained. The fire is east of Arizona 83 near Milepost 40.

Horseshoe 2 Fire

The Horseshoe 2 Fire had burned 80,500 acres as of Wednesday night and was 75 percent contained.

But while lines were secure around most of the fire, the northwest corner of the fire continued to elude efforts to get a line around it on Wednesday.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

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

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