Wallow firefighters begin backfiring operations in New Mexico

Wallow fire 6-8-2011
Wallow fire 6-8-2011
Wallow fire 6-8-2011; photo by Kari Greer for NIFC

Update at 10:00 p.m. MT, June 11, 2011

Another update from the fire this evening included some information that we had not seen from the incident management team, and that is the number of air tankers used on the fire. Today there were “5 air tankers available, plus a DC-10”. So, there were six air tankers available. The DC-10 made two sorties to the fire on Saturday, dropping on the west side south of Greer.  Structural protection and fireline improvements are underway around Sunrise Resort. There is no change in the acreage, but the containment is back up to 6%, a 1% improvement since this morning.

Update at noon MT, June 11, 2011:

Ten minutes ago, at about 11:50 a.m., the incident management team released their “8:00 a.m.” update: the fire has burned 430,171 acres and it is 5% contained, down from 6% yesterday. Also:

Fire Update

The fire is 5% contained, with containment lines established on the fires northeast side. Improved weather conditions allowed for successful burnout operations along the 273 road near Greer, in Water Canyon south of Eager, and northeast of Alpine. Today’s activities include structure protection, continued burnout and mop operations to strengthening containment lines, and patrol for spot fires. Burnout operations will continue into New Mexico east of Luna along Highway 220.

Burnout operations may be limited due to Red Flag warning that has been issued for today from 1 PM to 8 PM for gusty south-southwest winds 15-25 mph, low relative humidity, and unstable air mass over the fire.

One hundred and seventeen law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions are working with the incident to ensure public and firefighter safety, as well as protection of property during evacuations.

Public Safety

According to the State of Arizona, air quality in the Springer-Eager area is currently considered extremely hazardous. Residents with respiratory problems in the path of smoke may want to consider relocating temporarily until smoke dissipates. Motorists should exercise caution due to reduced visibility.

The fire is the second largest in Arizona history, and is closing in on the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire which burned 468,638 acres.


Update at 11:19 a.m. MT, June 11, 2011:

We were interviewed over the phone yesterday by a reporter for CNN about the Wallow fire and what it’s like to be a wildland firefighter. Here is a link to the article at CNN.com.


Map of Wallow fire, data 2301 6-10-2011
Map of the Wallow fire, showing heat (the red and yellow dots) detected by satellites over the last 24-hours with heat data current as of 11:40 p.m. MT, June 10. A mapped fire perimeter is shown (the red line) current as of 11:01 p.m. on 6-10-2011. MODIS/Google

While the main Wallow fire in eastern Arizona has not crossed into New Mexico, firefighters have started a backfiring operation in New Mexico in order to eventually control the spread of the fire. In the area where the backfiring operation on the east side of the fire began, the fire was about one and a half to two miles from the state line, but the backfire as of Friday night at 11 p.m. MT had progressed approximately one and a half miles into New Mexico. Scroll down to see a more detailed 3-D map showing the east side of the fire.

South of where the backfiring operation began on Friday, south of Highway 180, the fire has come close to the state line in two places, from one-half mile in one area to just a matter of feet in another.

The fire is almost completely surrounding the community of Alpine. Yesterday east of the town the fire burned intensely downhill, moving approximately one-half mile closer. There is only a narrow corridor southeast of the town along highway 180 that has not yet burned.

Some areas on the west side of the fire burned intensely on Friday, but it did not encroach any further into the community of Greer, where 22 houses burned on Wednesday.

The DC-10, Tanker 911, which was used on Friday near Greer, did not make any drops over the fire on Friday.

Yesterday we ranted a little about what we (and some others) have perceived to be a less than adequate performance by the Information function on the fire. Another example: this morning we called two different phone numbers listed as official sources of information on the fire and asked a question that could be easily answered by looking at a copy of the daily Incident Action Plan. Neither location had a copy of today’s IAP.

It’s probably a coincidence, but this morning the Area Command Team 3 Twitter account sent these messages:

Information Team support for ACDR this location 0900 today. Spinning up increase info significant

And then:

Setting up JIC. Contact info to follow.

And later:

Best local information on Wallow Fire Springerville, Greer, Alpine 928-333-3412. Luna, Reserve 575-5336928. S and W of fire 928-205-9884

“ACDR” is the Area Commander, the person in charge of the Area Command Team. “JIC” is Joint Information Center. From these messages, it appears that Area Command will more closely coordinate and supervise the Information function, a welcome improvement.

More information about the Wallow fire, including additional maps, are below.

Below is a 3-D map showing the east side of the Wallow fire. The vertical white line is the Arizona/New Mexico border. Click on the map to enlarge it.


(Click to enlarge) Map of the Wallow fire, showing a mapped fire perimeter (the red line) current as of 11:01 p.m. on 6-10-2011. MODIS/Google


Map of Wallow fire, north side, data 2301 6-10-2011
(Click to enlarge) Map of the north side of the Wallow fire, showing heat (the red and yellow dots) detected by satellites over the last 24-hours with heat data current as of 11:40 p.m. MT, June 10. A mapped fire perimeter is shown (the red line) current as of 11:01 p.m. on 6-10-2011. MODIS/Google

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Wallow firefighters begin backfiring operations in New Mexico”

  1. I think you have hit the nail with your definition Bill. Another way to look at it is this; burning out is part of line construction nd the decision to carry it out is made at the resource boss level(engine, crew). Back firing is a larger scale operation, and responsibility for making the decision to engage lies with the OPS section Chief, or branch director.

  2. Your head line says “firefighters beging “backfiring in New Mexico”.
    I was involved in firefighting for 45 years including 15 years on a Type I Team in New Mexico and Arizona. The term is “burning out”, not “backfiring”. Two different animals.

    1. SP- Without being on the ground there to see exactly what they are doing, and what the fires are doing, it’s tough to say definitively which term is more correct here.

      From the NWCG Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology:

      “Burnout: Setting fire inside a control line to consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line.”

      “Backfire: A fire set along the inner edge of a fireline to consume the fuel in the path of a wildfire or change the direction of force of the fire’s convection column.”

      In my mind, if the fire is actively spreading and a fire is set along a control line to actively spread into and meet the main, active fire, that is a backfire, with or without affecting the convection column. And a burnout is a more passive situation, where firefighters use fire to remove fuel between a control line and a main fire that is more passive, or not actively spreading toward the control line.

      In this case the fire is very actively spreading toward the control line where the firefighters are setting the fire. And the key from the definition of a backfire is “…consume fuel in the path of a wildfire…” Most of the backfire operation currently underway on the east side of the Wallow fire is originating from a road, Jenkin Creek Road, rather than from a constructed fireline.

      Some people are reluctant to use the term backfire and may think of it as a short-term, last-ditch tactic, but that is not my interpretation of the term. However I can see how others may disagree. It’s an interesting discussion.

      Later today I’l post a 3-D map showing the area of the main fire, the backfire, and the terrain in between.


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