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Vicious Fire Season Goes from Bad to Worse

Vicious Fire Season Goes from Bad to Worse

Arizona Daily Star

May 25, 2011

Predictions of an early and vicious fire season are coming true, especially in a swath of the Southwest where extreme drought and a killing freeze this winter combined to desiccate grass and shrubs.

Fire restrictions are in place on most state and federal lands throughout Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Dangerous fires break out daily.

Southeastern Arizona, including the Tucson area, is now in the cross hairs. “From now until the monsoon, it’s going to be hot and heavy,” said Chuck Maxwell, predictive services group leader for the Southwest Coordination Center.

The only bright note Maxwell sounded was prediction of a productive monsoon in Southern Arizona and Eastern New Mexico that should bring rain, on time, in early July.

Maxwell said an “extreme drought” zone correlates with maps of parched vegetation and fire danger in a swath that includes most of Texas, half of New Mexico and the southeastern edge of Arizona, where the Horseshoe 2 Fire burned 13,300 acres in the Chiricahua Wilderness and forced evacuation of hundreds of residents in the community of Portal this week.

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Wind has been the principal culprit in growing fires, said Maxwell.

“I’ve seen few years with this magnitude of wind – gravel- blowing wind,” Maxwell said.

“The bottom line is, this weekend we had an explosion of activity everywhere, with fires getting real big, real fast.”

In New Mexico, three areas, including Gila Hot Springs and the Cliff Dwellings National Monument north of Silver City, were ordered evacuated in the past week. Fire has burned 337,462 acres in the state since January, said Mary Zabinski, spokeswoman for the Southwest Coordination Center, which manages firefighting activities in the Southwest.

In southwest New Mexico, the 60,000-acre-plus Miller Fire burned through the popular Cliff Dwellings National Monument Tuesday, but firefighters were able to protect the visitors center and most of the buildings. Four U.S. Forest Service trailers were burned, said Nick Smokovich, spokesman for the team fighting the fire.

Some fire “spotted” in the nearby community of Gila Hot Springs, but firefighters were able to protect the 35 or so cabins and businesses there. The fire continues to spread north across the Gila Wilderness.

Just over the state line in Portal, Ariz., residents were allowed back to their homes Wednesday morning after a scary couple of nights because of the 13,300-acre Horseshoe 2 Fire. Firefighters there had to contend with dust storms that blew embers across fire lines.

The winds calmed a bit beginning Wednesday and the evacuation order was lifted.

The winds will be back before long, Maxwell said. Storms originating in California will continue to track north of the fire zone, bringing wind but no rain to the region for the foreseeable future.

Right now, fires are being fueled by dried grasses, shrubs and small trees.

Oaks are particularly stressed, says a “fuels advisory” released this month by fuels specialist Drew Leiendecker of the Sierra Vista District of the Coronado National Forest, where two fires were being fought Wednesday.

About 80 percent of the oaks on the 4,000-to-6,000-foot slopes of the 12 “sky island” ranges of the Coronado were damaged by frost and dropped their leaves. Only those in moist drainages have recovered, Leiendecker said.

Manzanita and juniper, the other dominant woody plants of that elevation, are also tinder-dry.

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The big trees at higher elevations are next, Leiendecker said.

Good rains in the Coronado last summer combined with scant precipitation this winter to produce a lot of ready-to-burn grass and kiln-dry trees.

“Conditions are what you’d usually have toward the end of the fire season, not the beginning,” said Leiendecker.

Leiendecker spoke Wednesday by cellphone from a fire camp near Lochiel, along the Arizona-Mexico border where six air tankers were dispatched to slow the growth of the North Tank Fire, which broke out Tuesday and had grown to 1,200 acres.

Arizona’s 2011 wildland fire toll of 54,333 acres grows by the day. Conditions mirror those of our worst fire years, Leiendecker said.

“With no significant relief expected until the onset of the monsoon in early July, expect conditions to continue to deteriorate,” says Leiendecker’s advisory.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.

On StarNet: Go to for more photos of wildfires in the Southwest.


- Create a defensible space around your house by clearing or trimming back large buildups of trees, shrubs or grasses. To learn how to become more fire-wise, go to

- If you’re in the forests, don’t leave campfires unattended, even for a moment. A sudden breeze or other disturbance can cause that fire to spread quickly. This year’s dry weather has caused authorities to impose fire restrictions in the forests.

- Go to to learn if you have flammable, non-native buffelgrass that should be removed in your yard or neighborhood.

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