A watch from parched Mt. Lemmon as fire season lies ahead

[Photos by Jade Nunes]

SUMMERHAVEN – Despite recent rainfall, prolonged  drought brought fears in  California about a dangerous and costly wildfire season that could be looming as winter wanes. And here in Summerhaven, the small town that sits at 8,000 feet above Tucson near the summit of Mt. Lemmon, drought and a warm, dry winter have also raised concerns about what might lie ahead when fire season comes.

There already has been a small fire, on Jan. 30, near the Middle Bear campgrounds at Milepost 11 off Catalina Highway, the road that leads from Tucson to Summerhaven.  Known as the Little Bear Fire, it was human-caused and is still under investigation, the authorities say.  But the fact that a fire occurred in January underscores the concerns about the dryness of the forest — and the prospect ahead for bigger fires when the temperatures rise and the chances for rain fade.

“Yeah, this is worrisome, the drought,” said Robert Zimmerman, mayor of Summerhaven and a long-time resident. “We’ve got February and March. Let’s hope we get some rain up here.”
Zimmerman and the close-knit community of Summerhaven, with a year-round population of about 40, know all about fire, of course. Nearly 11 years ago, the Aspen Fire continued for four weeks after parts of the town burned down on the third day. The blaze scarred a large part of the Coronado National Forest in the Santa Catalina Mountains, including Mt. Lemmon.

Damage from that fire is still evident in naked skeletons of massive ponderosa pines. And Summerhaven, where new cabins and other development have arisen since the blaze, sits among numerous felled trees and singed stumps. Only recently have young, green saplings begun to appear in the scarred areas of the mountain.

“After the fire, we went for about eight years where nobody worried. We learned a lot of hard lessons. The fire damage is for the most part gone in town, except for a couple of areas. But we’ve had a dry spell like this before, and the mountain was closed down.”

He explained that the Coronado National Forest, which covers the Santa Catalinas and Mt. Lemmon, have at times been closed to campers and hikers to prevent unintended campfires or picnic barbecue grills from potentially sparking a wildfire.

In recent years, larger fires have raged across the state, the largest being the Wallow Fire, which started in June 2011, evidently from an abandoned campfire, and ultimately burned more than 538,000 acres near the White Mountains and even into New Mexico.  About 6,000 people were evacuated during that wildfire. The Wallow Fire dwarfed the Aspen Fire’s mere 84,000 acres. But it’s not always the size of the fire that determines its severity, experts say.
Last summer, the Yarnell Hill Fire, ignited by lightening in bone-dry mountainous wildlands, claimed the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters – elite interagency wildland firefighters who were dispatched from Prescott.  That tragedy marked the largest loss of wildland firefighters since 1933.

As the next wildfire season lies ahead, questions are being raised about risks to firefighters who are tasked with protecting structures that have been built in naturally fire-prone areas as development spread into wilderness fringes in recent decades.  These areas, known as the wildland-urban interface , encompass the overlap of development and wildland areas where forest fires often burn naturally.

“We are sorely tired of killing people for the sake of homes,” said Kristy Lund, fire staff officer for the Coronado National Forest. “We’re just tired of it,  frankly.”

Lund said that she considers the wildland-urban interface issues to be critical in anticipating wildfire outbreaks and how to manage them.  “It’s where you’ve got people living and working in the wildlands,” she said. “So yes, we’ve got some wildland-urban interface issues here. If they want to take the risk to move out in the wildlands, they have to take the responsibility to protect their homes and their land.”

She did add, however, that drought and dryness do create concern for potential fires. Southern Arizona is currently classified as “abnormally dry” and is in a moderate to severe drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

“Fundamentally the West has been in a drought. We’ve just got very little in terms of rains,” Lund said. “And a few sprinkles just aren’t going to help you.”

Lund also said that the National Forest Service doesn’t officially declare the onset of a “fire season,” saying that they do not want to give the public a conception that they can turn the fires on or off.  She added that Southern Arizona could potentially have fire any time of the year.

The fact remains,  however, that drier conditions create more fuels – grass, trees, brush – that can lead to fires that grow faster and burn more land.

“It’s something that we’re going through in a drought, and it definitely can lead to an active fire season,” said Ken Drozd, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tucson. “Any time we have a dry climate and dry winter it could certainly cause some issues.”

He added, “Even when we have more moisture in the winters, we know that it gets really hot and everything can dry out quickly. You can still have significant fires. But we’ve been dry, and the outlook is that we’ll continue to be dry. I think the reason why conversation is on California because they’ve already seen a few fires.”

According to Drozd, talks about upcoming “fire seasons” don’t typically start until early spring. He added that it wouldn’t surprise him to hear talk about Southern Arizona being in an active fire season this year sooner rather than later.

“The chances are that we are going to have drier fuels — but that doesn’t mean we won’t have one or two systems that come through here and bring some moisture,” he said. “We prepare for the worst scenario and hope for the best.”

The National Forest Service declined to comment on whether there has been discussion of declaring an active fire season in Southern Arizona in the next few weeks.

“I guess right now, we have to remain somewhat optimistic that we’ll get some precipitation in the remaining months of winter,” said Cathie Schmidlin, a spokesperson for the National Forest Service in southern Arizona. “But it is something that has our attention and we are looking at this.”

Schmidlin said that the Forest Service will begin looking at what steps, if any, will need to be taken in preventive services as Arizona if the dry weather persists.
“We have to take one step at a time and we have to see what February and March bring us,” she said. As the winter months wane, she said, “there will be more information.”

The National Forest Service is in the process reviewing applications for its “fire hire” – an effort to increase fire-related, temporary jobs and positions for the upcoming season.

Here in Summerhaven, there is hope that the forest could see more snow and rain before the warmer months arrive and chances for precipitation diminish.

“It came early,  then it quit. But it’ll come again,” Debbie Fagan, a Summerhaven resident and local shop owner, said of the scant precipitation this year.  “Really, nothing scares us anymore up here.”



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