The Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona are the largest of the “sky island” mountain ranges and home to a host of rare species, some of which are found nowhere else in the U.S. As I write this blog entry the mountains are ablaze. Each summer as the temperatures rise and the humidity drops, we dread the beginning of the fire season. A combination of low fuel moisture level (sometimes drier than kiln-dried lumber), hot, windy days and occasional lightning strikes provide the recipe for seasonal wildfires. Human caused fires, either accidental or intentional, only add to the risk of a catastrophic fire.
On May 26th a plume of smoke in upper Cave Creek Canyon heralded the beginning of what is now known as the Horseshoe fire. By May 31 it had spread to over 1600 acres and despite the efforts of over 700 firefighters, 5 helicopters, and the expertise of the U.S Forest Service’s elite “hot shot” crews, is 0% contained. The Forest Service has acknowledged that, because of the rugged terrain and harsh conditions, the fire is already beyond their capabilities to extinguish and will probably burn until the summer rains begin. Which means that if the “monsoons” come on schedule this year, it will be 4 to 6 weeks before the fire is out. Fire management will consist of trying to protect structures and minimize the impact on endangered species and sensitive habitats. The Forest Service knows the location of the Mexican Spotted Owls, Elegant Trogons and Northern Goshawks as well as the riparian habitat that supports the greatest concentration of nesting owls of any comparable size area in the U.S. However, even with the massive effort and sophisticated computer models to predict fire behavior, Mother Nature is still in charge and unpredictable.
Ironically, our years of fire suppression have only added to the fuel level and the threat of catastrophic fire. Tree ring data show that low intensity fires swept through these border mountain ranges every 7-10 years, clearing dead wood, opening up meadows and stimulating germination of some fire-dependant pines. Once Smokey Bear showed up and began immediate fire suppression, fuel loads began to build until they reached the dangerous levels seen today. Today’s fire management strategy is much more holistic, but it will take years of prescribed fires and a few very frightening wildfires to begin to restore the natural system.
Reports from the Chiricahuas today indicate that the fire is a low intensity fire creeping down into the jewel of the mountain range, South Fork Canyon. Hopefully the favorable conditions will continue and a cleansing fire will do little lasting damage. We all are hoping for the best for the firefighters, wildlife and habitat of this special area.