Arizona: Coconino National Forest managing two less than full suppression fires

(Originally published at 9:48 a.m. MDT May 24, 2016)

Map Cowboy Mormon Fires
Map showing heat detected by a satellite on the Cowboy and Mormon Fires south of Flagstaff, Arizona. The brown and red dots represent heat during the 24 hours ending at 3:07 a.m. MDT May 24, 2016.

The Coconino National Forest is managing two lightning-caused fires south of Flagstaff, Arizona. Named the Cowboy and Mormon Fires, they were reported on May 17 and 15, respectively. The Forest management staff has decided that they will use a less than full suppression strategy for both.

The maximum management area (MMA) for the Cowboy Fire, 8 miles south of Flagstaff, is 3,425 acres, with about four miles of the possible perimeter being very close to Interstate 17. The fire has been very active over the last 24 hours. The U.S. Forest Service reported on Monday that the fire had burned 5 acres, but using recent satellite data our very unofficial calculations show that it has burned approximately 400 acres.

Maximum Management Area Cowboy Fire
Maximum Management Area for the Cowboy Fire. The USFS expects the fire will not exceed this area. USFS.

Forest Service officials intend to limit the Mormon Fire, 16 miles southeast of Flagstaff, to 11,664 acres. It has also been active in the last 24 hours but not as much as the Cowboy Fire. The agency reports that as of Monday the fire had burned 350 acres.

Maximum Management Area Mormon Fire
Maximum Management Area for the Mormon Fire. The USFS expects the fire will not exceed this area. USFS.

It will be interesting to see how the partially greened-up vegetation on these fires at 7,000 feet elevation will be affected by the strong southwest winds that are predicted for the rest of this week. On Tuesday the wind forecast is 24 mph gusting to 39, along with a relative humidity of 24 percent and a temperature of 61 degrees. Wednesday through Sunday the forecast calls for winds of 12 to 18 mph gusting at 20 to 30 mph. There is very little chance of rain this week.

Cowboy Fire
Cowboy Fire as seen from Lake Mary, May 23, 2016. USFS photo by Brady Smith

Cowboy fire

Creating the Aravaipa hand crew

Above: Aravaipa crew superintendent Greg Smith, center in black shirt, briefs the crew on the thinning project in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachuca.

The photos and article are by Tom Story

Greg Smith has had more preparation than usual to get his crew ready for the upcoming fire season. He is starting the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Aravaipa hand crew from scratch and the task is almost complete.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Greg Smith, superintendent of the Ariavaipa Hand Crew.

“This is unique. I know the overhead, most of the overhead, but we know nothing about any of the seasonals, except on paper”, said Mr. Smith. “We are trying to do a veterans crew and right now the numbers are 75 percent vets”.

“The reason that the numbers aren’t higher”, Mr. Smith continued, “is because there aren’t a whole lot of vets with the experience at those higher GS levels; the captain and squad boss positions. All the old vets have moved on into higher up positions or got away from the fire service in general. So now we’re getting a new group of entry-level folks”.

“I was able to pick up a few non-vets with extensive experience: three or four years on a shot crew, which brings a lot to the table where you are starting a new crew” said Mr. Smith who had learned earlier that “strong overhead is key”.

The crew’s overhead positions are all Jackson Hotshot alumni. Mr. Smith brought with him to Sierra Vista both his assistants, Wade Irish and Ryan Hagenah, one of the squad bosses, Anthony Ashalintubbi, and a former squad boss, Daric Burrwith.

Aravaipa fire crew
Arturo de Leon cuts and Shane O’Farrell swamps as the Ariavaipa crew thins vegetation near a recreation site in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachca.

“I think we have a pretty good blend. At least seventy-five percent of the crew have some fire experience. Some of the vets came from the vet program. I picked up quite a few of those folks”, continued Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith started his wildfire career in Arizona with the Coconino National Forest’s Flagstaff Hotshots in 1993 after serving in the Navy. Two years later he moved to the Globe Hotshots on the Tonto National Forest where he spent the next thirteen years, eventually becoming the crew’s superintendent in 2001.

In late 2007, he moved to the Northwest Fire District, outside of Tucson, AZ to help convert Northwest’s highly regarded Type Two Initial Attack crew into a Type One crew. They achieved Type One status in October of 2009, becoming the Ironwood Hotshots. Mr. Smith ran the crew until the Fire District disbanded the crew in 2014. He then joined the BLM and moved to Mississippi to become superintendent of the Jackson Hotshots.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Squad Boss Anthony Ashalintubbi (center) coaches Aravaipa crew members Zach Wolf (left) and Sean O’Malley on safe chainsaw handling while limbing of trees on the ground.

According to BLM State Fire Management Officer Kelly Castillo, in 2015 the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) approached the Arizona State office of the Bureau of Land Management about hosting Mississippi’s Jackson Hotshots early in the fire season. “We said yes, but hotshot crews are expensive”, said Mr. Castillo “and being frugal we asked the Gila District folks to find a housing solution”. The district contacted Brad Nicholson, Chief of the Fort Huachuca Fire Department, with the idea of hosting the crew on the Army base adjacent Sierra Vista, Arizona. Chief Nicholson was very enthusiastic about the idea and worked with the base commander to allow the crew to use some available dormitory space. After the BLM and the Army drafted a formal use agreement the Jackson Hotshots completed a successful multi-week tour of southern Arizona in 2015.

“The idea of starting a crew in southern Arizona grew out of bringing Jackson down early in the 2015 season” continued Mr. Castillo, “and since the BLM has a history of having veterans crews, it made good business sense to base them at the Fort”. Besides having the crew be all veterans, the other goal was to have them attain Type One (hotshot) status within three years.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Cory Hall (left) and Ben Evans work on one of the new saws.

“NIFC allocated the funding for the crew start up and for the remodel of an unused motor pool facility on base” said Mr. Castillo “as well as an increase in annual preparedness funding”.

Mr. Castillo also indicated that the presence of the Aravaipa crew at Ft. Huachuca will serve as a recruiting tool for those in the military looking for opportunities following their military service.

The crew is expected to become available for fire assignments around April 25th.

Arizona could be primed for an early fire season

Arizona’s wildfire season typically starts in late May and runs until the monsoons start in mid-June. But the fire activity so far this year indicates the state may be seeing an early beginning. The dry and warm weather they have had since the first of the year is similar to 2002 and 2011 when the very large Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres each.

Below is an excerpt from Azcentral:

…In the first quarter, 294 wildfires that burned 21,383 acres were reported, compared with the 147 fires that burned 452 acres of land in the same period last year, according to the forestry department.

“Our dry February and March months have brought the fires ahead of schedule,” said Bill Boyd, a spokesman for the Arizona State Forestry. “These disastrous seasons come in cycles of five to eight years. Given the right conditions, it’s possible that we can see one this year.”…

Senator calls for forest thinning to prevent exploding trees

U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both representing Arizona, spoke to residents in Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside March 24. According to an article in the Arizona Journal, Senator McCan discussed the importance of thinning forests in the state, in part to prevent trees from exploding. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“In the State of Arizona, and in Navajo County, the future rests on two issues to a large degree, and that’s fire and water,” said Sen. McCain, relating the statistic that 20 percent of U.S. national forests have been consumed by fire in the past 15 years.
McCain noted that the issue of forest thinning has been given top priority by officials at the nation’s capitol. “Unless we thin these forests, we are going to see the kinds of things that we saw with the Chedeski fire and the Walleye fire, and that is trees literally exploding as the fuels that have accumulated around the bases of the trees burns up,” he predicted.
“Without forest thinning, fires will just sweep right through,” he said, also pointing out the ‘snowball’ effect that forested areas decimated by fire also become susceptible to chronic ground surface water runoff, which worsens drought conditions.

Having been a wildland firefighter for 33 years, as far as I know trees exploding in wildland fires is a myth. I’ve never seen it, heard it, or talked to anyone who has witnessed such an event. This has been perpetuated in a number of books and articles, but I have never seen the evidence.

When lightning strikes a tree it can explode when the moisture inside is converted to steam in a millisecond. And maple trees can explode in below freezing temperatures when the sap freezes. There are unconfirmed reports that eucalyptus trees in Australia can explode in a fire but I’m not convinced this is true. I understand that heated gasses or sap can shoot out of a crack in a eucalyptus tree and can be ignited during a fire. Maybe some of our Australian friends can provide more accurate information.

Wildfire News, March 7, 2016

Alaska April wildfire potential
April wildfire potential in Alaska, based on vegetation conditions and weather predictions.

Fire officials say to ‘expect an early start’ to Alaska wildfire season.

Shooter’s tracer rounds ignite 2-day forest fire at Missouri gun range

A proposed Utah law would enable police to shoot drones, but people have been arrested for doing so.

–A massive bushfire cut off and isolated the South Island town of Hanmer Springs, New Zealand on Tuesday (local time).

–The Arizona Wildfire Academy is taking place in Prescott this week.

Hubbardston, Massachusetts gets military surplus truck to help battle brush fires.

Hubbardston Mass mil surplus truck
Hubbardston, Mass. military surplus truck. Photo: Hubbardston Fire Department.

Wildfire briefing, March 1, 2016

Wildfire closes I-15 in northwest Arizona

A fire between St. George and Mesquite late Monday caused Interstate 15 to be closed for several hours. A sheriff’s deputy suffered a broken leg when he attempted to assist a resident who was on the roof of a home using a water hose to keep the fire at bay. Mohave County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Trish Carter said a person burning weeds on his property caused the fire and may face charges.

Pipeline companies ordered to pay $6.5 M in damages from Oklahoma wildfire

From the Insurance Journal:

Two pipelines companies have been ordered to pay more than $6.5 million in damages to more than 70 plaintiffs whose property was destroyed in a 2012 wildfire in Oklahoma.

Court documents say a Payne County jury ordered IPS Engineering L.L.C. and Global Pipeline Construction LLC to pay the damages to be divided among 72 plaintiffs nearly four years after the fire consumed farmland, homes, timber and other property. Tulsa World reports that IPS Engineering was ordered to pay an additional $1 million in punitive damages, and Global Pipeline Construction was ordered to pay $100,000.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer says the nearly 8-mile fire broke out near Glencoe on Aug. 4, 2012, when company employees continued welding despite a statewide burn ban issued the day prior.

Forest Service requests information about suspicious fire

Fire managers on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona suppressed a suspicious human-caused fire on Sunday, Feb. 28, just west of Buckskinner Park. The Clover fire, which was reported just after
1 p.m., was knocked down by fire personnel and will continue to be monitored. The fire is currently under investigation by Forest Service Law Enforcement. Anyone with information regarding the cause of the fire, or that observed anyone suspicious in the area near the time of the fire is encouraged to contact Kaibab National Forest Dispatch at 928-635-2601 or Fire Information at 928-635-5653.