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Southwestern Wildfires: The Big Picture

A summary of the damage wrought by Wallow, Las Conchas, and other wildfires to Indian lands in the Southwest
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The Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service is massive—22.3 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico with 11 national forests and a national grassland. That’s a lot of tall timber and prairie grass in the potential pathway of a single burning ember that could have been ignited by lightning or by man.

“As of early July, wildfires across the United States have burned nearly 5 million acres to-date compared to a 10-year same-time-period average of 2.6 million acres,” according to a report by The Weather Channel meteorologist Tim Ballisty.

Arizona and New Mexico represent merely a single—but a very active—regional section of that fire damage. Although numbers are constantly shifting as some blazes are finally contained while other new ones are reported, a rough count of the Top 50 Southwest Region Active/Inactive fires on the U.S. Forest Service Incident Information System (as of July 15) shows the following:

Since Arizona’s 2011 wildfire season kicked off on May 3 with the 10,000 acre Bull wildfire in the Coronado National Forest, 16 separate blazes have been spotted and battled to various stages of containment with 7 of those fires still listed as Active as of a week ago. Fewer wildland fires have been reported in New Mexico, 13 from May to mid-July, but 9 are still logged as Active on the Forest Service’s database.

The numbers aren’t precise at this point in the compilations, but initial calculations show in excess of 865,000 acres in Arizona and another 410,000 acres in New Mexico have already suffered devastation of most everything green—and in the wake of the flames lies only burnt trees, former grasslands, and denuded countryside left with severely burned (hydrophobic) soil that sheds water like a raincoat.

If you have a strong stomach and are a devil for punishment, keep in mind that the summer rainy season in the Southwest, annual torrential rains known as chubascos or monsoons, will come and go from now till mid-September. Each storm could be capable of touching off more lighting-caused woodland fires or initiating flash flooding, where massive walls of water overflow arroyo banks and pick up speed rolling downhill with burnt trees and boulders as large as cars—and nothing to stop the fury.

The to-date days of destruction include several fires that impact Native American soil: the lightning-caused Stanley Fire on the San Carlos Apache tribal lands in Arizona; a massive human-caused Wallow Fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and the Las Conchas and Pacheco Fires that threatened 6 of the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico.

Dagot’ee, the Apache greeting, was heard numerous times as several thousand firefighters from all over the country arrived in Arizona to battle the largest wildfire in the state’s history, the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire that surpassed the monster Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 as the worst that the state had experienced. Of the latest record-breaking fire, Melanie Lenart, author of Life in the Hothouse: How a Living Planet Survives Climate Change, has reported: “Together, these two fires burned about 1 million acres of mostly Ponderosa pine forest.”

Wallow (named after its point of origin in Bear Wallow Wilderness) burned from May 29 until a declaration of full containment was made on July 8. In those intervening days, numerous communities had to be evacuated as apprehension rose on both the Fort Apache and San Carlos Apache Reservations. Flames were fought in Apache, Navajo, Graham, and Greenlee Counties in Arizona, and in New Mexico’s western Catron County (where 15,000 acres burned).

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Although fire did breach its borders, the Fort Apache Indian Reservation largely escaped the wrath of this blaze. (Such was not the case nearly a decade ago with Rodeo-Chediski, in which sixty percent of the wildfire occurred on Indian land.) The tribe’s cultural resources director credited sweat-lodge ceremonies for saving Mount Baldy, one of four key summits in Apache history. “We did prayers for it,” he told reporters.

If indeed those prayers were answered, it was in the form of wind. Winds are frequently are often the bane of firefighters' existence, as gusts under Red Flag conditions tend to spread flames even further—but this time, winds helped push the advancing Wallow wall of destruction away from Indian land. Had those winds reversed direction, with no natural barrier for more than 30 miles, reservation property could have taken a much heavier hit.

Indigenous firefighters were represented by the elite Type 1 Hotshot crews that work the frontlines of wildland fires, and members of the celebrated all-women Apache 8 unit were also involved. Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal programs comprise 7 of the 144 national Interagency crews with two units (Geronimo and Fort Apache) based in Arizona and two more (Navajo and Zuni) that call New Mexico their home.

Frequently overlooked because of the giant size of the Wallow Fire and its Page One headlines was the weeklong Locust Fire that scorched an entire mountainside. It took the efforts of firefighters from the Bureau of Indian Affairs; White Mountain Apache Tribal Forestry; White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue, and crews from Hon-dah and Cibecue to finally bring that May 6-12 fire under control.

The Stanley Fire event on San Carlos tribal land burned for over three weeks despite the efforts of 7 fire crews (nearly 400 personnel) aided by 3 helicopters, 6 engine trucks, 2 water tenders, and a bulldozer in a struggle of man against nature that took out nearly 9,000 acres in the process. A post-fire assessment showed grasslands as well as juniper, pinon, and Manzanita brush took the hardest hit. Temperatures ranging between 100-105 degrees combined with 22% humidity and winds gusting to 25 miles an hour didn’t help in the containment effort.

The story arousing the most national interest developed as heat and smoke from the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest kept inching closer to the birthplace of America’s nuclear weapons program, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where up to 30,000 tons of “low-level, plutonium-contaminated” waste is stored. The hysteria ultimately proved unnecessary, as the town and facility were spared, although the larger debate over the safety of Los Alamos will continue.

Las Conchas—at more than 156,000 acres, the largest in New Mexico history—is still listed as Active with burnout operations continuing to eliminate unburned fuels that could ignite and push the flames across containment lines. Visible smoke on over 2,000 acres comes from a planned ‘underburn’ that consumes ground vegetation, but spares trees and larger vegetation. “The burnout operation is going well and staying within all lines as planned—all part of the effort to secure the fireline and greatly reduce the risk of the Las Conchas Fire making another run,” according to Operations Chief Irv Leach in his Forest Service report.

And what's in store for the remaining months of this year’s fire season? “Given predictions for a hotter and drier Southwest, we have our work cut out for us,” reported FireScape Program Manager Brooke Gebow from her post in the already-fire-burned Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista.

“The fires of 2011 are consistent with projections based on climate change,” wrote Conservation Policy Coordinator Louise Misztal in her Sky Island Alliance newspaper column. “Since the mid-1980s, the frequency of large fires and the total area burned have steadily increased in western forests, linked to earlier springs and warmer summers. There has been a four-fold increase in the annual number of major wildfires and a six-fold increase in the area of forest burned compared with the 1970-1986 timeframe.”

While the current fire frenzy has cooled down for the moment, the threat of more activity looms. Tinder-dry forests are still full of fuels ready to ignite from just a single lightning-caused spark in a summer storm season that has two months left to go. Weary firefighters in Arizona and New Mexico had best take advantage of the current respite, because they may get called back into action very soon.