Two fires this June have burned about 2,000 acres of rancher Bill McDonald’s grazing allotment in the Peloncillo Mountains, and he’s calling it a good year.
The 8,000-acre Hog Fire, like the 6,000-acre Guadalupe Fire before it, is burning through grassland choked with shrubs, and McDonald expects that after the summer rains, he’ll have plenty of grass for his cows and a healthier ecosystem.
Both fires, started by early lightning, were managed by the U.S. Forest Service for resource benefit. The Peloncillos are east of Tucson in eastern Cochise County.
Rain in late spring gave firefighters the opportunity to manage the blazes as a means of restoring an ecosystem that needs fire to thrive, said Johnny Whatley, fire management officer in the Douglas district of the Coronado National Forest.
He said both fires have been mostly tame, burning at times through patches of previously “treated” terrain where the U.S. Forest Service has joined with local ranchers to create a plan to set prescribed burns or allow naturally occurring blazes to perform the job.
“If you are going to keep the grass in these habitats, fire is part of it, that’s for sure,” said McDonald. “In a lot of places, if you don’t have a periodic fire, you get these trees and the brush that shade everything out and you get a monoculture.”
McDonald is a founder and executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group, created to restore natural processes in a million-acre swath of public and private land in Arizona and New Mexico north of the Mexican border.
The ranchers in the area joined with scientists, conservationists and the U.S. Forest Service to put together the Peloncillo Programmatic Plan, which has been used by the Forest Service to conduct five prescribed burns over the past two decades.
Whatley said the plan is valuable when natural fires occur, as well. “I’ve got maps, structures and values at-risk, potential fuel models and recommended strategies.”
McDonald said the benefits of the fire — removing shrubs and woody plants and reviving the grass — far outweigh the inconvenience of replacing a few burnt fence posts.
He said the two fires simply are just the latest good news for ranchers in the Peloncillos.
“This was a good year down here for everybody. Winter was good enough, following a pretty exceptional summer. We had rain in the spring, and cattle prices are up.
“My grandfather told me if I lived long enough I’d see a year like this and I guess I have.”
The Guadalupe Fire, which started June 2, is basically out but not officially declared so yet, said Gerry Perry, fire information officer. Perry said the Hog Fire, which was reported June 17, shouldn’t grow much more. Humidity is high and thunderstorms are starting.
“There are only a handful of landscapes — the Malpai, the Gila, the Rincons — where fire can move around the landscapes carefully,” said Don Falk, a professor in the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
“The factors that tie managers’ hands are still there — houses, infrastructure, politicians.”
Falk said land managers are stymied by a lack of funds to take advantage of opportunities afforded by years in which it might be safe to manage fires or set prescribed ones.
“We know how to mobilize resources to throw a lot at landscapes when the fire pendulum is at the other end of the spectrum. This is the year we should be throwing resources at the landscape and we don’t do it,” Falk said.