Monday, April 28, 2014

Fire Season in the Desert

April 21, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert in the spring is fabulous. However, this past winter has been very dry. Due to lack of precipitation there will be less weed growth, but a lot of the older dead growth will provide fuel for the slightest spark whether accidental, careless or natural. Once the temperatures get up in the triple digets the desert becomes a tinderbox ready to explode into a fire. 

A slurry bomber battles the 1979 blaze at the base of Superstition Mountain, which is obscured by smoke except for the few peaks visible in middle of photo.
A dry desert is often marred with dangerous flash fires and wildfires in the late spring and the early summer months prior to the monsoons. The fire danger increases as late spring and early summer temperatures rise. The wildfire season also increased dramatically when more and more people moved to the arid deserts of the American Southwest. Many of these new residents don’t realize the extreme danger of a dry desert under the extreme high temperatures of summer. This desert tinder can be as volatile as gasoline.

Most wildfires result from two things. One is lightning and the other is human carelessness. Lightning strikes usually occur during the July monsoons and most fires prior to the monsoons are usually human caused. A carelessly tossed cigarette, a careless target shooter or an abandoned campfire usually causes these fires. I can’t over emphasize how a carelessly tossed cigarette could cost you your home and your life.

As we move into summer, families are beginning their summer 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 fifty-five years. The first real wildfire 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 these fires.

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

An Apache Junction firefighter battles a wildfire on Superstition Mountain (AJ News file photo). Most wildfires result from two things— lightning and human carelessness.
A large wildfire raged through Needle Canyon in 1969 destroying several thousand acres of desert landscape. An abandoned campfire was the likely cause of this wild fire. This fire eventually burned itself out because of the inaccessibility to the area.

I witnessed and photographed one of the most dramatic wild fires on the slopes of Superstition Mountain in the summer 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 a high wind 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 could not be seen from State Route 88 (Apache Trail). If it had not been for slurry bombers many homes would have been lost in this fire and lives could have hung in the balance.

On July 4, 1983 another 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 also burned itself out. Abandoned campfires most likely caused these fires.

There was a large wildfire in the area of the 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 between 1984 and 1994.

The next big fire to strike the region was the Geronimo blaze near the Gold Canyon development area. This fire started around June 11, 1995 and was fought for three days. A hundred and twenty firefighters eventually brought this blaze under control before property or lives were lost. The fire destroyed 2300 acres and threatened several homes near Gold Canyon worth more than a hundred thousand dollars each. This particular fire produced huge columns of smoke that could be seen from Phoenix skyscrapers.

This past few years has been quiet in our area except for the Lone Fire on Four Peaks near the end of April 1996. The Lone Fire destroyed almost 62,000 acres of the Tonto National Forest. To put this figure in perspective, this would be almost one third of the Superstition Wilderness Areas. The Lone Fire was one of the most devastating fires on public land adjacent to the Superstition Wilderness Area during the past twenty-five years.

Then, on June 18, 2002, one of the largest wildfires in Arizona history began. This was the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. This wildfire burned 470,000 acres of Arizona timber and grasslands by time it was under control on July 7, 2002. Recovery from this fire will require more than a century. The Wallow Fire in June, 2011, near Alpine burned more than 520,000 acres becoming the largest wildfire in Arizona history. The Wallow fire was human-caused.

The Superstition Wilderness Area experiences some kind of a wild fire almost every summer.  On several occasions the wilderness has been closed to camping and hiking during extreme fire 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 create more fuel for fires. Precipitation also causes severe erosion in areas that have been burned and denuded of vegetation. This, in turn, destroys the watershed that is so crucial to water conservation in Arizona.

As the dry season approaches this summer the fire danger will continue to escalate, bringing dangerous conditions to our desert. There is plenty of tinder and deadfall to burn. Once the high temperatures arrive and the tinder dries out it becomes extremely volatile.

Your care with fire, smoking, firearms and open flames at all times is extremely important and will protect us all. Smoking should be confined to automobiles or buildings during extreme fire conditions. Your caution with fire protects everyone from immediate danger.

We can help by having reasonable firebreak around our homes, especially if we 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, power tools, and any other use of open flames or sparks. Fire safety in the desert starts at home and should be practiced at all times. For more information about fire safety around you home contact the Apache Junction Fire District, 565 N Idaho Rd., Apache Junction, or phone:(480) 982-4440.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Special Band of Heroes

April 14, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Over the years I have met many interesting men who called themselves “Dutch Hunters.” This term is used to describe the men and women who search for the Dutchman’s lost mine in the Superstition Wilderness Area east of Apache Junction, Arizona. There were none more interesting than Monte Edwards, an international command pilot for Delta Air Lines. Edwards was a graduate of Eastern Colorado State College at Gunnison. He served as a combat pilot during the Korean conflict flying F-86 Sabre jets. He was a major in the United States Marine Corps.

I always enjoyed Monte’s company in the mountains. I met him in 1977 and we were friends for many years. Monte would never go into the mountains with me, however he would meet me at a pre-arranged site.

Monte Edwards on horseback.
One cold week in January he wanted me to pack some supplies into West Boulder Canyon. The weather looked bad with ominous black clouds heavy with moisture hanging low in the sky. I arrived at our pre-arranged site at 10 a.m. and there was no sign of Monte. I had almost decided to return to the trailhead when I heard Monte’s distant voice call out, “Hey Tom, I made it.”

We talked briefly and then I started unloading his supplies from Don Shade’s mule. I was packing mining equipment for Monte. After the mule was unloaded I unsaddled Crow and prepared to stay the night (against my better judgment). Monte was convinced we could plan on a really wet night so we prepared our camp for heavy rainfall. We secured my saddles and equipment with plastic. Then we set about making our sleeping quarters waterproof from the impending storm. We briefly listened to Monte’s weather radio and the forecast said to expect severe and heavy rain for the next ten to twelve hours.

By 3 p.m. the rain was falling and there was nothing to do but go to bed or get in our tents. It didn’t stop raining until the next morning about 8 a.m. West Boulder Canyon was at full flood stage and I wasn’t going anywhere until the flooding subsided.

I had survived the night with out getting wet, but the water flowed by my tent all night long. Crossing West Boulder would be impossible for man or beast. Monte spent an hour getting a fire started once it quit raining. Even our protected wood supply was wet. Our situation was a bit dismal at best.

Three hours after the rain ceased I was packing my mule and preparing to ride out. The sun was finally shinning and it was warming up a bit. By 11:30 a.m. I was ready to bid Monte Edwards farewell. He appeared pleased that I was finally leaving so he could search in privacy. Monte had learned to trust no one or depend on no one in these rugged mountains. Dutch Hunters in general are a friendly lot, but they usually don’t trust anyone with their secrets about these mountains and are fiercely independent. In other words they don’t share their secrets with others and always protect what they know.

Monte had another interesting habit and that was photographing and accurately mapping each and every marking or petroglyph he found in the mountains. He had a collection that included more than five hundred.

Over the years he showed me much of his work. He evaluated each stone marking for its historic significance and relationship to other markings in the area. Many of the markings were contemporary, but most of them were ancient Native American petroglyphs. I found his collection of markings extremely interesting and historical in nature. His collection of markings and petroglyphs defined Monte as a perfectionist of the highest order.

As I rode away that morning Monte Edwards struck me as a somewhat lonely figure standing in the wilderness alone facing the elements. He was a confidant man who feared nothing the Superstition Wilderness had to offer. In his heart he wasn’t lonely, he loved what he was doing. After all he had been a United States Marine officer who had fought in the skies over Korea. I had always respected Major Monte Edwards, U.S. Marine Corps., for his service to our country. I waved farewell as I rode over a small divide with my pack mule in tow.

Briefly, I thought of Monte in this inclement weather, however I knew he took care of himself under the worst conditions in Korea as a combat pilot flying F-86’s against tremendous odds. I know so many stories about men who found peace, solitude, and tranquility in these mountains searching for a dream while suppressing the demons of war that haunted them.

Yes, this philosophy probably explains the souls of men like Edwin Buckwitz, Greg Pearce, Monte Edwards, Don Shade, Ron “Eagle” de Andre, Wayne Richardson, Bud Lane, Ludwig G. Rosencrans, and many, many more whose names we don’t know. Yes, Monte Edwards was with a very special “Band of Heroes.” 

The next time you see a veteran please tell him or her thanks for their service to our country. And also, God bless you for doing so.             

Monday, April 14, 2014

One Reason for Labor Advocacy

April 7, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Ed Barker’s Que Pasa editorial about Labor Day last year really struck home. His article supported the workers of this country and it made a lot of sense to me. I have always been a moderate conservative and proud of it. I can also write about labor unions because my father was a strong advocate of the mining union.

He was a veteran of World War I and had seen action in France with the American Expeditionary Forces under the command General John Pershing. He was at the Battle of Verdun and Meuse-Arragone at the close of the war on November 11, 1918. Dad was in the company of men like Sgt. Alvin York of Pall Mall, Tennessee, at Meuse-Arragone in France.

Tom Kollenborn’s father. This photo was taken in 1918 after he served in France during World War I.  He was honorably discharged with the rank of Corporal and was a member of the American Expeditionary Force under General “Blackjack” Pershing.

Other than his brief military career in France my father worked in mines all his life. He never wanted me to be a miner. His first mining job was in a coal mine at 13 years old. He always said working beneath the ground was nothing more than a date for the “Devil to grab your soul.”

Mining was the only thing dad really knew. He started in the hard-rock mines when water wasn’t used in the drilling underground. The miners inhaled the dust which led to Silicosis, a terminal lung disease. My father worked in hard rock mining for more than forty years. His two main interests outside of mining was fishing and wandering the trails of the Superstition Mountains. He was introduced to the mountains in the early 1930’s.

Dad was a strong advocate of mine safety. He verbally fought and even struck for the issue involving mine safety. There were many mining accidents between 1900 and 1940 in the United States. The Coal Mines were by far the most dangerous of all the mining operations during this period. The large mining interests did not want to spend the money to use water in their drilling operations to prevent dust. They wanted the miners to survive with only the use of respirators. Have you ever worked underground when temperatures were 110-120 degrees? It is almost impossible to wear a respirator. My father and most miners knew this.

It was a slow process to finally convince the mine operators to provide water for the drilling operations underground for controlling dust. The changes came about only when Mine Unions were formed and strikes occurred. Large mine operators did not want to spend extra money on mining operations that impacted their bottom line. Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century there were mining operations in the West where the Chinese, Mexicans, and others were paid less than whites and little thought was given to health and safety.

The bottom line was the miners were not slaves to any boss, but it took almost seventy years to ease the pain of the past. However, today men are still dying from Silicosis because of poor mining conditions. I could write a book on mine issues.

The protection of the workers from corporations is as important today as in the past. In the final analysis, too much union is as bad as not enough. We, as American, must find a middle ground because without the large corporations there would be less jobs and I think most of us know that. I have seen a lot of my father’s best friends die from Silicosis and it is no way to pass on. Today I know blade operators who worked in open pit mines ten to fifteen years ago who are slowly dying from Silicosis and they don’t have adequate health insurance to provide for their care.

Friends, there are two sides to this story.

My father loved the Superstition Mountains and the many stories he heard about them. He took me into the rugged mountains when I was just ten years old. I have never forgotten the excitement of those planned trips or the people we met in the mountains. At age fifty-two my father was in very good shape, but he was beginning to slow down. He could still hike from First Water to Needle Canyon and out in one day with me dragging along behind him. He always said, “Today’s memories were yesterday’s adventures.”

Yet, I can still see him connected to an oxygen tank and struggling to breathe because of his underground mining career.

Once again, thanks to AJ News editor Ed Barker for reminding me of the significance of Labor Day.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Life of a Cowboy

March 31, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Some time ago somebody ask me what it was like living at the Quarter Circle U Ranch in the late 1950s. I thought about it for a minute and said, “I was quite young and wanted to be a cowboy. Electricity and running water were not a priority for me.”

Tom Kollenborn at Barkley’s Bluff Springs Cabin, circa 1959.
However, at the same time I must admit life was quite primitive at the ranch. We cooked on a wood stove and a propane two-burner stove. We had a Serval Freezer that ran on propane. We had a single pipe in the kitchen for water. That is when there was water in the tank.

Our water supply depended on a full tank of water pumped by a windmill. The windmill depended on a breeze to operate. The problem with wind on the ranch was you either had not enough or too much. No, we didn’t have fans or coolers.

How did we survive 110° F in those days? It wasn’t easy, but we were young and foolish. I will try to describe what it was like working on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch.

We were usually up by 4:30 a.m. to feed the stock in the corrals. This would include our riding horses and cattle that were being treated for various ailments or injuries.

Every animal was important for us to save. After feeding the stock, we fed our chickens and then the two dogs. The dogs were stock dogs and they helped us gather cattle out of the brush and other inaccessible locales.

While I fed, my partner Mike would begin breakfast and also prepare a pot of beans to cook on the wood stove. By the time I completed morning chores that included gathering our eggs for breakfast I was ready to return to the ranch house. We generally had bacon, potatoes, chili, and eggs for breakfast. We had to slice our own bacon so the slices were often quite thick. Our bean pot had beef, bacon, and chili in it. We quickly learned to keep a stone on the bean pot lid. If we didn’t, we would have a mouse in our bean pot. Just more protein if you’re a hungry cowboy after a day of hard work. Mike and I would alternate jobs during our morning routine.

After breakfast we would go down to the barn and corral to prepare for our day ahead. During the summer months we generally worked from about 6 a.m. until about 2 p.m. at which time we would shade up. We would then go back to work at about 5 p.m. working for another couple hours or so.

Summer days were long days no matter how you looked at the work agenda. Usually we were fixing fence, repairing water sources, checking stock or packing salt.

When we worked for the Barkley Cattle Company, the ranch included one hundred and seventeen sections of state land, forestland and BLM land. We rode from Canyon Lake in the north to Tule Canyon in the south.

All of the Gold Canyon area was part of the ranch’s range with the exception of the King’s Ranch Guest Ranch and Resort. The main head quarter’s ranch was located at the Three Rs Ranch. The old ranch headquarters was located just south of Apacheland Movie Studio.

All has changed in the area today. We often herded stock from the U Ranch to the stone corrals at the Three Rs Ranch. The ride was about eight miles, but was slow and dusty with fifteen to twenty head of cattle.

Bill Barkley, Mike Finley and I drove about seventy-five head of yearlings along the old Three Rs – Quarter Circle U Trail in April of 1959. I think this was the last time the entire trail was used for a drive.

Often along our route we had a mixture of Mule deer and Javelinas. The wildlife would eventually fade into the desert, but often stayed with us for a mile or so.

Once the spring roundup was over, branding, dehorning, castration, and doctoring done, we then prepared for the long, hot summer. We would return to the bunkhouse at the U-Ranch. First, and most important, was putting all of the bed legs in a tin can filled with motor oil to help keep scorpions out of our beds. The pesky creatures would then crawl up on the rafters in the roof and drop into our beds. We also dealt with black ants and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes were very common after the summer rains in July. You wouldn’t believe the swarms of Mosquitoes we contended with. Sleep at night could be very difficult in those days.

Another interesting place was our outdoor privy. The outhouse was a notoriously coveted place by scorpions and an occasional rattlesnake.

Scorpions often waited for an unsuspecting victim to sit down on a toilet seat and then greet him with painful sting. We soon learn to lift of up the seat and check it for scorpions or whatever else might be waiting for us. Small rattlesnakes lying near the outhouse found it cool and comfortable in their world of survival. I eventually painted a sign for the outhouse that warned people of problems they might encounter in our outhouse.

If we had any riding to do, like packing salt, we were up at 3 a.m. and would be on the trail long before sunrise. I recall a trip we made to Bluff Springs in July to drop salt. Our plan was to be back at the ranch by 11 a.m. We would have made it, but we spent two hours working on the water source at Bluff Springs so the concrete tank would fill. Our ride back in temperatures that exceeded 110° F about did us in. We were sunburned and dehydrated by the time we arrived back at the ranch.

Life on the old ranch was rough, but I still recall all those adventures and it was probably one of the most exciting times of my life. I owe a lot to William Thomas Barkley for giving me that opportunity to grow into manhood and learn what work was really about. All ranches on the desert were like this. The old U Ranch was no exception.