Monday, May 2, 2016

Desert Wildfires

April 25, 2016 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert in the spring of the year is magnificent. But the abundant growth of desert plants creates a great fire danger as they dry out due to the late spring and early summer heat. Longer and hotter days add to this volatile mixture.

As spring turns to summer, the dry tinder increases the fire danger in the Apache Junction area. The amount of precipitation we receive in April will determine the level fire danger for late spring and early summer. A lot of the new growth will begin to dry out because of the lack of precipitation in the spring. A dry desert with lots of tinder can burst into wildfires in the late spring and the early summer months prior to the monsoons.

The wild fire risk increases dramatically as more and more people move in to the arid deserts of the Southwest that are unaccustomed to the explosive nature of wildfires. I have often heard people say, “Well there is nothing here to burn on this desert!”

An Apache Junction firefighter battles a wildfire blaze as it sweeps toward the mountain. AJ News file photo.
 Most wildfires result from either lightning or human carelessness. The numerous lightning-caused wild fires usually do not occur until the summer monsoons in early or mid July, and most fires prior to the monsoons are usually human caused. It is usually a carelessly tossed cigarette or an abandoned campfire that causes these fires. The careless tossing of a burning cigarette from a moving car causes numerous fires in Arizona each years.

As we move into the summer, families are beginning their vacations and outdoor activities. These activities include backyard cookouts, camping, and other outdoor activities. Any of these enjoyable activities can lead to disaster if we are careless with fire.

I have witnessed many major wild fires in our area during the past sixty-five years. The first real wild fire I recall occurred in July of 1949.  This fire raged out of control east of Reavis Ranch for several days before it was brought under control. Another wild fire broke out west of Roosevelt Lake in the Pinyon Mountain area in 1959, and burned several thousand acres of the Tonto National Forest before it was contained. Lightning caused those fires.

A fire broke out south of the Reavis Ranch in 1966, destroying much of the Ponderosa pine in the area. This fire was known as the Iron Mountain burn and was attributed to a campfire. The forest service planted drought-resistant grass in the area to prevent soil erosion in the area. This grass has become the climax vegetation in the area and has become a fire hazard in itself.

A large wildfire raged in Needle Canyon in 1969 destroying several thousand acres of desert landscape. An abandoned campfire was the likely cause of that wild fire. It’s believed by some the fire was caused by an old prospector who lived in Needle Canyon at the time.

I witnessed one of the most dramatic wild fires observed in this area on the slopes of Superstition Mountain in July of 1979. This fire raged across the slopes of Superstition Mountain with a fifty-foot wall of flame engulfing everything in its path. This fire was caused when high winds blew over a charcoal grill in somebody’s yard near the base of the mountain. One careless neighbor endangered hundreds of lives and millions of dollars worth of property as the fire spread over the mountain within an hour.  The smoke was so thick, Superstition Mountain was not visible from State Route 88 (Apache Trail).

If it had not been for the courage of slurry bomber pilots many homes would have been lost on the slope of Superstition Mountain on that day and lives could have hung in the balance. Heroic efforts made by members of the Apache Junction Fire District prevented disaster on the slopes of the mountain that summer. There just wasn’t enough water to fight a fire of this magnitude.

On July 4, 1983, a major fire raged on the eastern side of Superstition Mountain destroying several thousand acres.  This fire eventually burned its self out.

Needle Canyon was struck with another wildfire in March of 1984. This fire burned up the northeastern side of Bluff Springs Mountain and eventually burned itself out also. These fires were more than likely caused by abandoned campfires.

There was a large wildfire in the area of Massacre Grounds and along the northwestern slopes of Superstition Mountain in April of 1984. This fire was contained and in some areas burned its self out.  Several other man-made fires occurred in the wilderness or around Superstition Mountain from 1984 to 1994.

The next big fire to strike the region was the Geronimo blaze near the Gold Canyon developed area. This fire started around June 11, 1995 and was fought for three days. A hundred and twenty firefighters had it under control by June 13, 1995. This fire destroyed twenty-three hundred acres and  threatened several homes near Gold Canyon. This particular fire produced huge columns of smoke that could be seen from the Phoenix’s skyscrapers.

The past few years have been quiet except for the ‘Lone Fire’ on Four Peaks near the end of April 1996. The Lone Fire destroyed almost sixty-two thousand acres of the Tonto National Forest. To put this figure in perspective, that would be more than one third of the Superstition Wilderness Area. This was one of the most devastating fires on public land in Arizona during the past twenty-five years.

As many of you know, the Lone Fire was before the Rodeo-Chediski fire up on the Mogollon Rim in 2002 which consumed over 400,000 acres of public land and several hundred homes.

The Superstition Wilderness experiences some kind of wild fire almost each summer. On several occasions the wilderness has been closed for several months during the summer months to camping and hiking because of fire danger during extremely dry late spring and summer conditions.

This historical accounting of wild fire in our area gives you some idea of what a potential fire hazard the desert can be between late April and mid July. Precipitation is often a double-edged sword. Rain always brings relief to a dry desert region reducing fire danger, but it always produces an abundant growth of brush that can cause more fires.  Precipitation also causes severe erosion in areas that have been burned and denuded of vegetation. This in turn destroys our watershed that is a major source of the water for Salt River Valley.

As the dry season approaches this summer, the fire danger will escalate, bringing dangerous conditions to our area once again. The State of Arizona has been suffering a severe drought for the past ten years. These conditions may continue to prevail for another decade or so. There is plenty of tinder and dead-fall to burn on the desert. Once the high temperatures dry out the tinder, it is like gasoline. The conditions for wild fires on the desert are dramatically increased when the region dries out.

How you take care of fire and open flames at all times is extremely important and your caution will protect us all.  Smoking should be confined to automobiles or buildings during extreme fire conditions. The fighting of a raging wall of fire on this desert puts each and every firefighter’s life on the line and also risks the lives and property others.

Everyone should have a reasonable firebreak around their home, especially if they live on a large lot containing a lot of dry tinder. I would like to encourage everyone to be extremely careful with matches, cigarettes, outdoor cooking and any other use of open flames or sparks. Fire safety in the desert is something we all can practice at all times.

For more information about fire safety around your home during this critical period please call the Superstition Mountain Fire and Medical District at 480-982-4440. They are the professionals who can answer your questions.