Fire season's ill winds blow no good

After our dry winter, 'red flag' days' came at just the wrong time
2011-07-03T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T11:25:49Z Fire season's ill winds blow no goodTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 03, 2011 12:00 am  • 

A bone-dry winter set the stage, and then vicious winds blew Arizona to a record-setting fire season, with nearly 1 million acres burned so far and a couple of weeks of fire season remaining.

Wind was the wild card in the destruction. It seemed to blow hard just at the wrong time.

• On the Bull Fire in April and the Horseshoe 2 Fire this month, wind shifts sent four firefighters fleeing for their lives on "red-flag" days.

• The Monument Fire stayed in the Huachuca Mountains until wind pushed it out to destroy 65 homes and businesses south of Sierra Vista on three days.

• The Wallow Fire in Eastern Arizona, Arizona's largest on record, grew up in a windstorm, with embers starting fires three miles ahead of it. It quickly blew into a monster with gusts up to 65 mph on seven "red flag" days.

• Fire managers thought they had the Horseshoe 2 Fire contained on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains, but the wind had other plans, and the fire didn't stop until it had devoured nearly the entire range.

• Fires grew with astonishing speed on windy days - up to 80,000 acres in one day on the Wallow Fire, which now covers 538,049 acres or 840 square miles.

Blame La Niña. The same weather phenomenon that gave us a dry winter and a plant-killing freeze produced those winds, said Rich Naden, a meteorologist with the predictive services group at the Southwest Coordination Center, which oversees the region's firefighting efforts.

Persistently lower ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific shifted the west-east storm track this past winter, producing record snowfall in the north while robbing the Southern states of moisture. That's why we now have July skiing in the Sierra, floods in the Midwest and firestorms from Florida to Arizona.

Cold waters farther north - the longer-term Pacific Decadal Oscillation - contributed to the intensity, said meteorologist Art Douglas, who lost his home in Ash Canyon near Sierra Vista in what he described as a fire "tornado."

The La Niña cooling in the Pacific was deep and long this past year - "a combination of both magnitude and duration quite likely the strongest since 1917," said Naden.

It continued until just recently, leaving the Southwest on the edge of a storm track that brought wind but no moisture to the region.

Winter rains were virtually nonexistent. Humidity readings were in the single digits.

By June, grasses held less than 2 percent moisture; shrubs and trees less than 5 percent.

Campfires were banned early, and then the forests were closed as a precaution.

Still, fires broke out, and if they didn't get contained quickly, the wind blew them into record size.

This year, Arizona recorded its largest, fourth-largest and eighth-largest wildfires - the Wallow, the Horseshoe 2 and the Murphy.

Fires destroyed 103 homes, three businesses and a lot of forest. More than 20,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Fire forecasters had predicted a tough year - but this one, Naden said, is "epic."

CONTINGENCY PLANS

"Wildfires burn," said University of Arizona fire ecologist Don Falk, "until they run out of fuel or the weather changes."

They can be contained by depriving them of fuel, but wind can vault them over containment lines.

Fire crews spent days carving and widening 33 miles of fire line and blackened terrain between the White Mountain communities of Greer and Eagar and the advancing Wallow Fire.

That line of defense disappeared on one windy afternoon.

In the Chiricahua Mountains, crews worked nights to hold the Horseshoe 2 Fire to the range's east side, only to be thwarted by afternoon winds.

"We were all surprised by the fire behavior this year," said Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch. "It was a combination of fuel conditions, the drought and the wind."

Steve Frye, deputy incident commander for the team that fought the Monument Fire, said the winds on it did not force a change in strategy but did reinforce the wisdom of a firefighting philosophy known by the acronym PACE. Each day's activity needs a primary, alternate, contingency and emergency plan, Frye said.

As the fire moved north, it leaped fire lines and spilled out of the canyons of the Huachucas on June 14, 16 and 19 - the three days the wind blew hard from the southwest, directly aligning with Ash, Stump, Miller and Carr canyons.

Those are the days when embers were blown across fire lines and across the five lanes of Arizona 92 - setting fire to homes in the grasslands beyond, where residents usually don't worry much about fires in the mountains.

The fire team continued to "go direct" in the next canyon north - Ramsey. Crews built fire lines close to the action in the upper canyon, working in dangerous, steep terrain when the wind allowed.

Fire crews and soldiers also worked on a fall-back position - what they called a "catcher's mitt" of bulldozed and burned terrain far from the fire, on the edge of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca.

"We were prepared to go indirect for a long ways," said Upchurch. "Luckily, we had a break in the weather and the wind subsided."

The direct line in Ramsey Canyon held. There were no high wind days after the 19th. Humidity rose and, on Tuesday, rain fell on a large portion of the fire.

The Monument Fire is not out. That will take a lot more rain.

The fire season is not over.

Lightning now will take the place of humans as the primary cause of wildfire, and the swirling, sporadic wind associated with thunderstorms will take the place of those sustained winds.

Wind alone doesn't explain the magnitude of this fire season. We've had windy years before.

It was a combination of things - a perfect firestorm, if you will.

A dry winter followed 20 years of intermittent drought and rising average temperatures.

The forests, where fires have been suppressed for 100 years, are thick with trees and littered with dead vegetation. Outbreaks of beetles and other insects have killed large swaths of big trees. Freezing temperatures killed off vegetation this winter. Imported grasses burn hotter than native ones.

Add wind; set records.

On StarNet: See a collection of photos from the recent wildfires in Arizona at azstarnet.com/gallery

Calamities and miracles

It seems miraculous that no one has been killed or critically injured in the Southwest this fire season.

There have been many close calls, two of them detailed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

• April 29

Two people fighting the Bull Fire are supporting a helicopter landing site 300 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border with when they have to run from a line of flames that has escaped from a burnout operation beneath them.

The deliberately set fire at first burns slowly. Then the predicted "red flag" winds arrive.

Flame lengths of 1 to 2 feet become 8 to 10 feet. At least three slopovers head toward the crew.

The crew members break out fire shelters - thin layers of aluminum encasing silica cloth and fiberglass that are designed to reflect heat and encapsulate breathable air. They are a last resort when escape is impossible.

The firefighters light their own fire to create a blackened safe zone, but it isn't created quickly enough.

They run down the hill, holding their fire shelters, then are ordered back into the "black" they created. They leap a low line of flames to get to it.

Both are treated for burns. The more badly burned is released from a burn center within hours.

• June 7

The Horseshoe 2 Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains has grown to 140,000 acres, having leaped fire lines many times on windy afternoons.

Even though "red flag" conditions exist, crews are conducting a burnout operation on the north side of Turkey Creek, trying to keep the fire from homes on the south side.

At 2: 30 p.m., "the wind suddenly shifts from west to north, pushing smoke and firebrands across the road."

By 3 p.m. the crews are ordered out, except for two lookouts on a nearby ridge whose view of the fires is obscured by heavy smoke.

A crew boss tells them they are in a good position, then radios back: "If you don't feel comfortable, then leave."

When the smoke lifts, the two see two spot fires burning toward them and retreat down a steep, rocky chute. They head for the burned north side of the canyon, but a second flame front blocks them.

They run toward two rock houses identified as a "last resort" in crew briefings.

The first cabin is locked.

One of the firefighters breaks a window with a shovel, then breaks his shovel handle trying to force the window frame open.

As he begins to deploy his shelter, the smoke lifts momentarily and the second firefighter sees the other rock house. It, too, is locked, and he punches a window with his bare hand, then uses his fire shelter to clear out the glass.

Both men get inside and begin tearing down window coverings and moving anything that might burn away from the outer walls.

"The flame front passes through - burning into, around and over the house," the report says.

The firefighter with the injured hand is stitched up. The other goes back to finish his shift.

• June 14

Resident Art Douglas drives out of Ash Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains, just ahead of a rotating "fire tornado" that he estimates was a half-mile to a mile wide.

Douglas, a meteorologist and retired chairman of atmospheric sciences at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., says he didn't ignore the evacuation order issued two days previously for the area. He never received one.

He knows the danger and is packed and ready, but when he wakes up this Tuesday morning, it looks as if the fire is out. Relieved, he unpacks.

But in the early afternoon, as he works at his computer on a weather forecast, it suddenly gets so dark he can't see his keyboard. He steps out onto his balcony and sees the fire coming.

Douglas drives down the canyon, honking his horn to alert the neighbors, then comes back to the house to disconnect his hard drive and take it with him.

Deputies arrive to say he has two to three minutes. No, he says; they have zero.

"In hindsight," he says, "if we had stayed that three minutes, our possibility of survival was not very high."

He sees the fire hit his home in the rearview mirror. "What hit my house was literally a cyclonic tornado of fire, 100 feet high with a rotating wall."

Miraculously, when he drives back minutes later, the brick home with a concrete-tile roof still stands.

Smoke wafts off the roof. The plywood beneath his shingles smolders.

He drives back to Arizona 92 and tries unsuccessfully to persuade one of the firetrucks stationed there to come douse his house.

They are awaiting official orders and can't oblige. His 2-year-old, 4,000-square-foot house burns down.

RED FLAGS

Red-flag conditions occur when winds are sustained for three hours at 20 mph or greater, the relative humidity is 15 percent or lower and the fire danger rating is high.

The National Weather Service in Tucson, which forecasts for the areas burned in this year's major fires, has issued 32 red-flag warnings in 2011. Last year, 35 were issued for the entire year, and the full-year average for the last five years is 34.

2011 will probably be an above-average year for those warnings, and wind speeds have been slightly above normal, said Glen Sampson, meteorologist in charge of the Tucson office.

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

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